Riding on a Comet: The Astral Plane of Shabaka Hutchings

Chris Robinson explores three recent albums from the London jazz trailblazer.
By    March 25, 2020

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As tempting as low flight prices may be, Chris Robinson is staying home.

Of the current generation of musicians pushing jazz in new directions, perhaps none synthesizes the music of the black diaspora into a personal sound and style as much as saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings. Three recent albums on the legendary Impulse Records tell listeners all they need to know to understand why he’s a central figure in London’s dynamic jazz scene, a rising star in North America, and in the vanguard of creating the sound of black music in the 21st century.

The recently released, Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery, is the second full length album from The Comet is Coming, a trio featuring Hutchings, keyboardist Dan Leavers and drummer Max Hallett. Despite its jazz, Afrobeat, funk, dub, electronica, and rock influences, the music is irreducible to any genre. At its root, the trio specializes in assertive melodies, evocative soundscapes that fuel the imagination, and pelvis-shaking grooves that compel listeners to fill dancefloors. Leavers conjures a kaleidoscopic diversity of colors and textures from his synths, from crystalline trebles to rumbling fuzzed-out bass, from sonar pings to Prince Jammy-esque dub ray guns, from 8-bit video game glitch to dystopian sci fi soundtrack. Hallett is rock solid and emphasizes staying in the pocket over showing off his chops. Hutchings, who plays tenor and bass clarinet, brings to mind Maceo Parker—he doesn’t play a lot of notes, and like Parker, his sense of rhythm, timing, and phrasing is nearly unmatchable.

Trust in the Lifeforce‘s opening track “Because the End is Really the Beginning” is spacious and sets the mood for the rest to come. On “Birth of Creation” Hutchings and Leavers create interlocking polyrhythms that ride inside Hallett’s backbeat. The juxtaposition here between Hutchings’s woody bass clarinet and Leavers’s sinister electronics is striking. The album’s centerpiece is “Blood of the Past.” Leavers throws down a grimy neck-snapping bass line and Hutchings is fiery and menacing. Midway through poet Kate Tempest enters, speaking to modern society’s artificiality and the absence of real connection and something authentic to believe in. “Summon the Fire” and “Super Zodiac” are intense dance songs full of bite and swagger. The album closes with “The Universe Wakes Up,” with Leavers setting down an organ drone while Hallett makes his kit dance and Hutchings blows in the footsteps of Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, and Albert Ayler.

The Afterlife picks up right where Trust in the Lifeforce left off. It opens with guest vocalist Joshua Idehen’s ominous declaration: “The Comet is coming/Babylon burned down/Our time has come, our clock has run down/The Earth is cracked/The mountain’s popped/The river’s ripped/The air is churning.” Idehen reminds us that we have killed the planet, we should’ve spent less time adding zeros to our bank account, and that there’s nothing left for London but to gargle in flames.

Behind Idehen, Leavers lays down a plodding, crunchy, basslines, Hallett keeps a clattering beat, and in between verses Hutchings cries to the heavens. “The Softness of the Present” takes things down a notch, but only long enough to catch a breath before the trio builds and transitions straight into the title track. “Lifeforce Part 1” gives off an apprehensive feeling, as if the band is considering its options. Their immediate segue into “Part 2” leaves no doubt—they’re here to party with whoever’s down. The album ends with “The Seven Planetary Heavens,” on which Hutchings is soft, almost vulnerable. The group’s measured pacing certainly suggest images of survivors coming out of the rubble to see what can be salvaged. When the end comes (if it’s not already here), The Comet is Coming better be playing the afterparty.


We Are Sent Here by History is the second album from Hutchings’s intercontinental band Shabaka and the Ancestors. Like Sons of Kemet, this group pulls together multiple strands of black music and—as did Fela Kuti and Bob Marley—infuses them with anticolonial and antiracist politics. The group came together in 2016 after Hutchings had traveled to South Africa to play with trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni, who introduced Hutchings to the musicians who would become the Ancestors: vocalist Siyabonga Mthembu (who sings in English, Swahili, and Xhosa), alto saxophonist Mthunzi Mvubu, bassist Ariel Zomonsky, percussionist Gontse Makhene, and drummer Tumi Mogorosi. With multiple percussionists and a largely acoustic lineup, the Ancestors’ sound is closer to Sons of Kemet than The Comet is Coming.

We Are Sent Here by History addresses the dire state of the planet, the plight of its most marginalized peoples, and the continuing aftereffects of slavery and colonialism. “They Who Must Die” and “You’ve Been Called” speak to the West’s oppression and its failure to deliver on its promises of prosperity and equality. The hard-charging rhythm section and Mthembu’s forceful call to burn the names, archives, records, and bills on “They Who Must Die” suggest the inevitable return of the cultures erased by colonialism. The opening of “You’ve Been Called” sounds haunted and the repeated refrain “we are here on history’s call” announce the spirits’ arrival.

As with everything Hutchings touches, We Are Sent Here by History is funky, urgent, and unwavering in its expression of the multiple modes of black music. One hears influences of West African and Afro-Caribbean percussion, dub, and of course jazz. Beyond the musical influences lies a strong communal element. On “Beasts Too Spoke of Suffering” a group chant emerges out of chaos, “We Will Work (On Redefining Manhood)” begins with Mthembu accompanied by a vocal chorus, and the tribute to Rastafari “‘Til the Freedom Comes Home” features a call and response in which voice and instruments participate in. In fact, community might be one of the album’s main themes: a community of South African musicians finding common cause with a member of the Caribbean diaspora who speak to the human community at large on behalf of those whose lives unfolded and ended within the end times wrought by white supremacy. While the Ancestors’ music goes down easy, their message is not pleasant, but it is necessary.

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