Tuesday, April 07, 2020

CD Review: Shabaka & the Ancestors - We Are Sent Here By History

Shabaka and the Ancestors
We Are Sent Here By History
(Impulse!) www.impulserecords.com

"We Are Sent Here by History is a meditation on the fact of our coming extinction as a species. It is a reflection from the ruins, from the burning, a questioning of the steps to be taken in preparation for our transition individually and societally if the end is to be seen as anything but a tragic defeat." - Shabaka Hutchings

There's really no way that Shabaka Hutchings could have been thinking of the COVID-19 pandemic was he was preparing his new album. In this statement, he continues by talking about how "western expansionism, capitalist thought and white supremist [sic] structural hegemony" have brought us to this end. So he's looking far beyond the virus and these modern times. Nevertheless, it's a little too prescient.

Which is not to say that We Are Sent Here by History is a downer of an album. It's heavy at times, but it comes in the form of driving jazz with African and Afro-Caribbean foundations that reinforce the urgency of the music. Tenor saxophonist Hutchings's approach has more of a wide-ranging appeal, which can appeal to listeners whose tastes might lean more towards Robert Glasper than Matthew Shipp. While his performances might inspire audiences to cut the rug instead of listening attentively, neither does Hutchings simply play things to lure that kind of crowd either.

Hutchings, born in Britain and raised in Barbados,  and the Ancestors - a group of South African jazz musicians - debuted in 2016 with Wisdom of Elders. The new album marks their debut for Impulse!, and the label is an apt place for him. His music dips into the spiritual jazz that Pharoah Sanders recorded for the label in '60s and '70s. In fact, "Beast Too Spoke of Suffering" fades in much like Side Two of Sanders' Karma, when "The Creator Has a Master Plan" reaches the point where free jazz commingles with a tent revival. However, Hutchings' free moments don't get as searing.

He plays with more restraint, showing variety throughout the set in the way he alters his tone. When moments call for it, Hutchings' upper register has a crying tone similar to John Coltrane. In "The Coming Of the Strange Ones" he has the attack of a bar walking honker. "Teach Me How to Be Vulnerable," which closes the album with only Thandi Ntuli's piano behind him, sounds like he's playing a lyric due to the ruminative quality of  his performance.

Although he gets plenty of room to blow, as does alto saxophonist Mthunzi Mvubu, Hutchings's solos often feel more like variations on riffs. It isn't until "Til the Freedom Comes Home" that he really gets a chance to fully stretch out as a soloist.

But with the Ancestors' churning behind him, there's never a moment where it sounds like Hutchings is settling. Drummer Tumi Mogorosi and percussionist Gontse Makhene create plenty fire of an Elvin Jones variety, tumbling and driving the music, along with Ariel Zamonksy's solid bass grooves (during which you can hear the wood of his instrument resonating). Many of the tracks feature Siyabongu Mthembu singing, but the vocals never get in the way of, or distract, from the music. In fact the lyrics, and Mthembu's background shouts, elevate the emotion.

Granted there are more aspects of We Are Sent Here By History that could be excavated, such as the lyrical contexts, written by Mthembu and sung in languages such as Zulu. But even without knowing the text, it proves that the music stands on its own as a solid release.

No comments: