May 23, 2024

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CD review: Shabaka Hutchings – Perceive Its Beauty, Acknowledge Its Grace – 2024: Video, CD cover

British jazz star Shabaka Hutchings drops the sax for reeds and flutes on an album exploring fear, courage and the power of breathwork.

Typical: you wait ages for a flute album from a musician famous for other things, and then two come along almost at once. Hot on the exhale of rapper André 3000’s New Blue Sun, released last November, comes another exploratory redefinition, this time from British sax phenomenon Shabaka Hutchings. André 3000 guests here.

Hutchings stepped away from the saxophone at the end of 2023. Since the pandemic, this maven of the London jazz renaissance has been reassessing, exploring the gentler timbres of the shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute whose breathwork takes time to master.

This 11-track release features Hutchings on flutes and reeds, with added dilatory instrumentation and appearances by luminaries such as Floating Points, co-author of Promises (2021) with the LSO and Pharoah Sanders, a team-up that I’ll Do Whatever You Want inevitably recalls. On the video for End of Innocence, Hutchings mimes playing the clarinet underwater, the freedom of his rebirth echoed in his balletic submersion.

The emphatic playing of Hutchings’ more exhortatory bands (chiefly Sons of Kemet) has given way to a more impressionistic delicacy. Fear, courage and the power of breathwork are underlying narratives, as well as the flute as proxy for both birdsong and the human voice, as when Moses Sumney duets with Hutchings’ flute on the lovely Insecurities.

Pivoting to flute is on trend right now, although Shabaka Hutchings would unlikely see it that way. Britain’s most visible saxophone exponent of the last ten years had been riding a jazz wave that crescendoed with his mates Ezra Collective winning the Mercury Prize in September. Even before that win, Hutchings had stated publicly that he would be laying down his sax permanently, and he’s been largely true to that promise this year. In December, he played two collaborative final shows in Hackney interpreting John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme without any prior practice. In 2024, he appears to be headed more for Alice Coltrane territory.

Those who were audibly bemused by Andre 3000’s New Blue Sun album will likely be further confounded at this new offering from the Brit jazz magus. Hutchings’ embrace of the flute is no whim though, as anyone who has listened to Perceive Its Beauty, Acknowledge Its Grace will attest. For a start, he disbanded several successful groups in The Comet Is Coming and Sons of Kemet in order to pursue these burgeoning musical convictions (with Shabaka and the Ancestors having already run its course). It’s a bold marker that comes from a very different place from what went before, unfolding at an unhurried, almost liminal pace, a yin to the bludgeoning sax’s yang.

It wasn’t born in a vacuum, either. A previous album by the mononymed Shabaka, Afrikan Culture, slipped out in 2022 with literally no fanfare, featuring instead a panoply of panpipes, chimes and harps and titles such as ‘Ritual Awakening’ and ‘Rebirth’. At the other end of the scale came the more jazz hip hop adjacent 2023 album Flowers In The Dark by the mysterious Kofi Flexxx on Native Rebel Recordings (though clearly not mysterious enough, given that every review suggested Native Rebel head Shabaka was behind it). Armand Hammer’s Billy Woods and ELUCID guested on that record, and they both guest here too.

Such tentative steps can be seen as testing ground for the de facto debut, though that’s not to suggest that Perceive Its Beauty, Acknowledge Its Grace is a work of earth shattering virtuosity. Waiting around for Shabaka to become a master would be missing the point. Recorded in 2022 in New York, Perceive Its Beauty… is an album where Hutchings is living largely by his musical wits, supported by an impressive cast of collaborators, including the aforementioned Andre ‘3000’ Benjamin, Sam Shepherd aka Floating Points, Esperanza Spalding, Saul Williams, Leanne La Havas, and more besides. It’s that sense of bravery, plunging into musical communion with artists at the top of their game as a relative novice, that makes the album truly special. It’s almost entirely free from virtuosity and flexing from muscle memory. Counterintuitively, Hutchings might have already peaked: Perceive Its Beauty’s untutored expression conveys emotion sparingly and, sometimes, devastatingly. That sense of freshness may be difficult to capture again as he masters his instrument (though let us state that he’s no slouch either).

Or should that be instruments? Hutchings carries up to fifty in his rucksack at any one time, with a bag full of Brazilian Pifanos, Native American flutes, South American Quenas, Bamboo Flutes, Svirels and a Mayan Teotihuacan drone flute that Benjamin drops on the seven-and-a-half minute rumination ‘I’ll Do Whatever You Want’. Chief amongst his implements is the Shakuhachi – a longitudinal, end-blown flute – which he began playing during lockdown. It clearly unlocked something in him. Such is his dedication to the cause that he travelled to Japan in order to make his own instrument out of bamboo. Apparently it can take up to a year before you even get a sound out of it. On the record, it brings a mournful, untrammelled beauty to ‘As The Planets And The Stars Collapse’ and the aforementioned ‘I’ll Do Whatever I Want’. At times it is almost reminiscent of the human voice.

If we’re in the grips of a New Age revival – and the success of Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra’s sublime Promises plus celebrated reissues from Japanese ambient artists like Hiroshi Yoshimura and Midori Takada would suggest so – then one has to wonder why it is chiming so emphatically right now. The easy answer would be that New Ageism is a reaction to troubled times, where people take succour in their listening habits to mollify the illegal wars, the climate crisis and the return of fascism, at least in the moment that the music is playing. That seems a little too convenient in its vagueness to hold much water. What is true though is that the flute is an instrument of transition in jazz and popular music, and that it can go either way.

Don Cherry took things further into the realms of the spiritual when he reached for the wood flute on 1976’s Om Shanti Om, the year after making the masterpiece Brown Rice. Conversely, Kraftwerk shook off Florian Schneider’s flute playing in order to leave behind their image as hippies – the instrument was clearly antithetical to the technological future they were headed to. The flute, it is supposed, was mankind’s first musical instrument, a premise that was explored last year on Matthew Herbert’s The Horse, where he crafted bone flutes from the carcass of a dead nag he’d bought after coming across it by chance. And it’s perhaps that primordial cry from the beginning of history that Hutchings finds himself in pursuit of on Perceive Its Beauty, Acknowledge Its Grace.

The flute isn’t the only voice on the record, of course. The saxophone makes one appearance on ‘Breathing’ – and perhaps its final appearance, though who can say for sure right now? And the closing track ‘Song Of The Motherland’ bears the voice of Anum Iyapo with his warm Barbadian burr, a graphic designer who worked on albums by artists like King Tubby who also happens to be Shabaka’s father. The suggestion here too is of lineage, and that we’re all connected whether we acknowledge it or not. Any contretemps over an artist playing the saxophone vs playing the flute diminishes in the face of the bigger picture emerging. Perceive Its Beauty, Acknowledge Its Grace may find itself pigeonholed as New Age, but its inspirations are as old as time itself.

Perceive Its Beauty, Acknowledge Its Grace | Shabaka

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