Sons of Kemet – Burn (avant-jazz)

Posted on February 17, 2014


Naim Jazz Records naimcd195, DD CD & LP album, 49m 43s

£17.99 LP £10.99 CD £6.99 DD

BurnI often start my reviews by talking in general terms about the schtick of the artist or release; creative practice, methodology, how I theorise the music, what my critical approach will be and so forth. However, there’s equally often not that much to say. A lot of good music  comes my way that does things in pretty much the same way as lots of other music, good or bad, which leaves my opening remarks to deal with biographical information, or with a discussion of the music’s position within the context of the stylistic categories to which it attaches itself; Sons of Kemet, on the other hand, cannot be summarised by reference to any fixed marker. I can’t just say ‘this is an [adjective]-[genre] release’, and move straight on to describing the moods and textures. This pleases me immensely. A band which approaches the question of what its basic premises will be with such rigour and imagination has already done much of the hard work before they write or play a note; I mean, clearly, they need to be able to play, but the world is awash with technically brilliant players, most of whom, if they have anything substantial to say, are keeping it close to their chests. This tendency is particularly pronounced in regard to the world of jazz, which is the social-artistic milieu in which the authors of Burn circulate; jazz is an inherently progressive music, whose core values are articulated around invention and creativity, but it’s also the site of some unfeasibly conservative cultural values. Sons of Kemet, fortunately, have as much interest in ‘playing jazz’ as Univers Zero do in ‘playing rock’, and this album bears more resemblance in feel and attitude to much of the avant-rock music I encounter than it does to most jazz.

Generic conventions run deep. However radical an ensemble’s artistic vision, there tend to be things they won’t question. In jazz, artists past and present have pushed and pulled at the boundaries of the music by fucking with its melodic and harmonic parameters, and to a lesser extent with its rhythmic ones (although this frequently goes no further than the use of odd time signatures), but these things have mostly been done within the context of a very standardised set of instrumental resources, ensemble textures and approaches to orchestration. From Ornette Coleman to Dave Holland, innovation has rarely extended to messing with the acoustic jazz format, the odd vibraphone or plastic saxophone notwithstanding. Where those parameters have been subject to experimentation, it’s usually been a question of fusion, with rock, funk, hip-hop, Afro-Cuban music, or whatever. The sheer radical force, before you’ve even heard a note, of Sons of Kemet’s lineup – two drummers, a tuba and a multi reed-player – is a tribute to the power of the generic conventions it flaunts. Under the leadership of said multi-reed player, Shabaka Hutchings, this line-up aims to explore (among other things) the improvisational potential of African diasporic musical materials, with a particular focus on the Caribbean. Hutchings was raised in Barbados, but a particular inspiration for him was the legendary Count Ossie, a devout Rastafarian percussionist whose contribution was pivotal in the evolution of a distinctively Jamaican popular music. While the music on Burn does not ape the devotional, trance-like continuities of Rastafarian ceremonial drumming, the way the two drummers play off each other produces, in a similar way, an imaginative world for the listener to inhabit, rather than a simple scaffold on which to hang the other musical materials.

This is a band of very strong instrumental voices, all of them attached to musicians with an established pedigree. Oren Marshall is something of a legend for his boundary-crossing tuba shenanigans, drummer Tom Skinner sports an impressive and diverse CV, while other drummer Seb Rochford is certifiably famous for his work in Polar Bear and in his own right. To my mind, it’s the fact that Sons of Kemet’s music is founded on the strength of these voices, and on the alchemy of their interactions, that locates it unequivocally within the jazz tradition (although any attempt to define a word like ‘jazz’ in terms of intrinsic qualities is bound to get me in trouble…) The ensemble sound is coherent and clearly defined, incorporating a great deal of emotional and textural variety into a very distinctive and idiosyncratic stylistic palette; nobody who’s listened to this album more than a couple of times could fail to spot a Sons of Kemet tune (unless they changed direction radically after recording this, which I wouldn’t put past them). Marshall’s tuba alternates between driving the arrangements along with deep-grooving basslines (‘Going Home’ offers a good example) and producing the most extraordinary range of textural and melodic sounds, sometimes in contrast to Hutchings’ sax and clarinet (such as the subterranean harmonics that open ‘The Book Of Disquiet’), and sometimes in parallel to them (the octave parts in ‘The Godfather’, for example). The two drummer set-up is exploited, unsurprisingly, with a prominent role for percussion, but these two extremely sensitive and skilled players know their business far too well to dominate the sound unduly. Instead, each element of their combined resources is deployed with a arranger’s sense of the possibilities for orchestration that it affords. There is often a certain amount of ‘noise’ in the textures, not in the sense of electronic grit, but in the sense that there is a certain amount of ‘stuff’ going on percussively, that frees the music from the artificial, ‘clean-room’ sound of most studio recordings, and gives the impression of a much larger ensemble.

The music has, in many ways, a democratic feel to it; no single voice is dominant, least of all the leader’s, with no sense that any subset of the musicians involved is present primarily to accompany the others. The textures are often highly organised, but there are times when they create the sort of communal cacophony that made the collective improvisation of early jazz so powerful and so enduringly influential. There is also a lack of hierarchy to the way in which the various elements of the arrangements are employed; this music is not all about getting the melody across, or the groove, or any particular part of the whole. Instead it accords equal priority to textural, timbral, rhythmic and melodic content, producing its meanings in the intersection of all these things, and in the totality of its thunderously powerful impact. The melodies eschew the intricacies of conventional jazz, where meaning is felt to be in the moment to moment detail of note choice, and its relation to complex harmonies; here, harmonies are present only in the schematically implicit form of an underlying root motion that mostly describes a modal continuity rather than the peregrinations of tonal narrative. The top line often has far more to say in terms of phrasing, repetition, gradual transformation and the expressive potential of the instrument than in terms of contour and exposition, although there are some very fluid and attractive melodic motifs, such as those carried by Hutchings’ clarinet in ‘The Godfather’.

The music of the Caribbean is a recurrent theme in the stylistic materials on which Burn draws, but it crops up in a variety of intelligent and oblique ways, rather than, for example, just laying down a reggae groove and blowing on it. The punningly titled ‘Inner Babylon’ features a distinctively roots-style sax melody and drumming that’s clearly inspired by Sly Dunbar’s double-time snare approach, but the tuba addresses itself directly to highlighting the common ground between melody and percussion, rather than taking the obvious route and dropping an idiomatically correct dub line. Similarly, the closer, a cover of The Melodians’ ‘Rivers Of Babylon’, doesn’t situate itself in any one stylistic tradition, but takes the melody at half-time and follows where it leads; this turns out to be to nearly as many places as that very famous roots reggae song has already made itself felt in, in the Caribbean and beyond.

All these questions, of style, creative egalitarianism, communality, improvisation and so on, are not unrelated. I began by emphasising the radical force of Sons of Kemet’s instrumental resources, and I’ve made assertions regarding their stylistic coherence and distinctiveness. Like the core rhythmic/stylistic feels of the jazz world, the straight-ahead post-bop swing and ballad feels, their style cannot be encapsulated in a shopping list of idiomatic features, but is the outward manifestation of a method. There is an established set of techniques for processing jazz material, which is considered (erroneously in my view, but that’s a whole other PhD thesis) to locate its essence in a set of chord symbols and a written melody; analogous techniques or methods have been developed at different times in the music’s history, one of the most remarkable being (to my mind) the improvised funk feel pioneered by Mike Clark and Paul Jackson on Herbie Hancock’s Thrust. In their determination to make music that fundamentally reflects their creative agenda, Sons of Kemet have nailed another set of methodological colours to the mast. This is not, I’m sure, an attempt to re-invent musical practice, or to found a movement, but simply the result of their following the implications of their starting premises to their logical conclusions. To produce a music that is proper to the particularities of their line-up has dictated that they establish a context in which every one of the remarkable musical personalities in the band can make a full and equal contribution. And this, I should reiterate, represents a degree and form of creative rigour rarely found in any field of music. This is the point in the review at which I might be given to describing the emotional impact of the music, the experience of hearing it, or, to put it another way, its meaning. But why try to paraphrase the un-paraphrasable? All I can tell you is that the melodic materials are not excessively tense or dissonant, and that the music is not easy listening; but it is as entertaining as it is serious, and it covers a range from the contemplative to the bombastically intense with a subtlety that only comes from a collective mastery of phrasing and dynamics. At times it is moving, and at times it is beautiful; and at all times, it is sublimely creative, notably accomplished, and uniquely powerful.

Posted in: Music, Music reviews