Shabaka and the Ancestors ‘Wisdom of Elders’ 2LP/CD/DIG (Brownswood Recordings) 5/5

shabakaSaxophonist, band leader and composer Shabaka Hutchings was born in London in 1984, before moving to Barbados at the age of six. Since returning to the UK in his mid-late teens, he has explored many aspects of jazz, with his primary project, the group Sons Of Kemet, winning the 2013 MOBO award for Jazz Act of the year. In 2014 Hutchings was invited to join the Sun Ra Arkestra, performing with them and recording a session for BBC Radio 3. He has also performed and recorded with the Jazz Warriors, Polar Bear and Soweto Kinch. For me, “Wisdom of Elders” is the culmination of Hutchings’ many years of searching deep into his musical roots and his finding a true voice and the correct musicians to help him convey his message. This double vinyl album is a revelation. Everything seems to have come together with all the pieces of a musical jigsaw falling into place at the right time. The album is a document of sessions combining the saxophonist with a group of South African jazz musicians he’s long admired. His connection to the group was Mandla Mlangeni (bandleader of the Amandla Freedom Ensemble), whom he’d flown there to play with over the past few years. Recorded across just one day, the group drew on their South African lineage – heroes like Zim Ngquwana and Bheki Mseleku – to bring their own slant to the American jazz lineage being reconfigured in the band leader’s compositions themselves. The recording features Shabaka Hutchings – Tenor sax, Mthunzi Mvubu – Alto sax, Mandla Mlangeni – Trumpet, Siyabonga Mthembu – Vocals, Nduduzo Makhathini – Rhodes, piano, Ariel Zomonsky – Bass, Gontse Makhene – Percussion, and Tumi Mogorosi – Drums.

“Wisdom of Elders” has a vital, sincere and naturally earthy feel to it. The sound of the recording sits perfectly with the music being performed. There’s a unified ease that is offset by a cool edginess, making for a wonderfully engaging listen that never appears to fall into any kind of lull, there’s always something keeping the listener on their toes. Hutchings’ writing here is at times both spellbinding and mesmerising, with intelligent use of arrangements and instrumentation adding to the overall experience. It feels as if Hutchings is delving deep into his musical lineage as he examines and reimagines his influences with a dexterity that’s unique. Drawing out the vision underlying the album, he says, “I see energy as being a form of wisdom to be passed down through the ages.” Unpicking the album’s title, he continues, “When we study the music, the lives, the words of our master musicians we obtain a glimpse of that artist’s essential energy source. This is the core vitality of the individual which leads them to utilise the musical specifics of their chosen genre in a way that mirrors their inner source of power. This is an intuited wisdom that’s handed to us from the legacies of our elders.” And indeed, the music performed throughout “Wisdom of Elders” momentously and successfully radiates with new life, whilst paying homage to the legacies of those that have walked this earth in the past.

There are 9 tracks on this double vinyl release, sides A, B and D each with 2 compositions, and side C with 3. It’s easy to completely lose oneself in this music, it’s almost spiritual qualities taking the listener on a cosmic journey of discovery. And yet it succeeds in remaining completely grounded, honest and totally devoid of any pretention or falseness. The music speaks for itself with a natural flow of beautiful energy coming from all of the musicians involved. This is one of those albums where the listener will find pleasure in a certain side of the vinyl and I found myself playing that one side over and over, continually loving the discovery of the tunes I was focussing on. And then later I’d put on a different side and be just as blown away by the tunes on that side as well. Having listened to all 4 sides repeatedly now, for me there are some tracks that do stand out above others, but this will probably vary from one ear to the next, given the depth of the music at hand. I particularly loved “Mzwandile” with its searching, soulful vocal and sax melodies, “Joyous” which utilises the trumpet with a soaring spirituality, and “Give Thanks”, a more conversational, freer, exploratory piece between tenor sax and drums. The South African heartbeat is prevalent throughout and the combination of inspired writing and musicianship undoubtedly makes “Wisdom of Elders” one of this year’s stand-out, must-have albums.

Mike Gates