Review: Soweto Kinch at the Oxford Jazz Festival

Soweto Kinch
(Oxford Town Hall, 22nd April 2011, part of Oxford Jazz Festival, review by Hamish Birchall; Photo credit: Barker Evans)

Multi award-winning alto sax virtuoso Soweto Kinch topped the bill last night at the third Oxford Jazz Festival, a four-day Easter treat with over 50 performances, talks, interviews and workshops in 32 venues.

The ornate, cathedral-like space of Oxford Town Hall reverberated to Kinch’s exuberant fusion of jazz, hip-hop and MC rap. His intelligent and humorous introductions quickly established a warm rapport with the audience, and the thoughtful and creative spirit behind the music.

The evening’s programme was taken from his third and most recent album ‘The New Emancipation’, a musical exploration of the idea of freedom.

A soulful sax cadenza opened the show, morphing into the medium-slow funk of ‘Never Ending’, with hints of a reggae drop-beat. Drummer Graham Godfrey (‘The Big G’) expertly navigated varying time signatures with crackling snare accents, Karl Rasheed-Abel delivered a solid, subterranean bass, guitarist Femi Temowo supplied the first of many mellifluous and apparently effortless solos, not to mention a beaming smile that lasted all evening. The audience was hooked.

Interviewed days before by Julian Joseph on BBC R3’s ‘Jazz Line-up’, Kinch talked about his influences, ranging from Delius to Ellington and Booker Little. His idea was ‘to embrace the whole gamut of African diaspora expression to tell this story…’. If it is not always entirely clear how the music and these ideas connect, there is no doubting the sincerity of the project.

‘Trying to be a star’, had Temowo doubling on backing vocals while Kinch rapped a tale of futile striving for celebrity. Rasheed-Abel was effective on electric bass this time, and again drummer Godfrey shone with a series of increasingly intense fills.

‘An ancient worksong’ followed, appropriately to a slow shuffle beat, then ‘A people with no past’, a headlong post-bop tumble seemingly on the edge of chaos but with bravura solos from Temowo and Kinch . The set closed with a dramatic change of mood, ‘The love of money’, a brooding, lumbering number, Kinch again in declamatory vocal mode.

The second half began with ‘Trade’, a lazy swing groove. Kinch and Godfrey exchanged rhythmic phrases, and Rashid-Abel took a lyrical and inventive double-bass solo. ‘Axis of Evil’ had Kinch MC-ing: ‘Is the Obama nation an abomination when it bombs a nation?’, with echoes of the pioneering socio-political rap of 1970s Gil Scott-Heron.

An instrumental, ‘Escape’, was introduced as a deliberate excursion ‘to a far less morose universe’, and succeeded with a subtle but accessible melodic theme.

The evening closed with two audience participation numbers, obviously enjoyed by the whole band. ‘Freestyle’ showcased Kinch’s formidable improvisatory rhyming skill. Members of the audience were invited to shout words beginning with the letters of ‘Freedom’. These included ‘eggs’, ‘David Cameron’, ‘Oxford’ and ‘mojo’. Improbably, and to the delight of all, Kinch wove them into a coherent and comic rap.

The finale, ‘Raise your spirit’, had the audience shouting ‘spirit’ as one, a tribute to Soweto Kinch’s talent for fusing diverse genres, and bringing their otherwise fragmented audiences together in one joyful celebration.

Oxford Jazz Festival website

Categories: miscellaneous

23 replies »

  1. He's a real natural, charismatic performer who, you can tell, lives to play sax. Highly entertaining, thought provoking and a real musical find.

  2. How about some analysis of jazz content? One has the impression of players capable of jazz improvisation but preoccupied with popular entertainment, rap, hip-hop, reggae, what have you. What of SW and band as jazz players and their fitness for a jazz festival?

  3. Anonymous 2, thanks for raising some interesting points:

    For your first point, the fact that Soweto Kinch does attract and reach out to a sizeable and enthusiastic audience is significant in itself. In the UK and recently in Germany too.

    As regards how a gig like this fits into the general programming of the festival, perhaps the organizers have a view (?) The festival is growing from a base solidly rooted in British jazz, and is representative of many of the strands. Jazz in Britain is a very broad co-existence of different strands, all of which – I would say – are “fit” to be included.

    I would say that Hamish has done a good job, and described well what he heard and what he saw. But you make some interesting points, let's see where this discussion goes.

  4. As one of the organisers, I couldn't have put it any better myself – As the theme of this Year is a Celebration of British Jazz, being able to showcase how formidable the variety is within the British Stable, from Norma Winstone, through Bobby Wellins to Soweto Kinch forms the very backbone of what has been reviewed as a brave, exciting and varied lineup.
    As a graduate from Hertford College, he has no more fitting place than heading up a night of the Oxford Jazz Festival to a packed out house.
    He also attended a late night Jazz Jam at my place where he continued to play with Oxfordshire musicians, embracing as many Jazz disciplines as you could hope to find, through to the wee small hours. An exceptional headline act for what's becoming an exciting festival in a terrific City.

  5. Hi, I am a Londoner recently moved to OXford and I have been staggered by the number of top quality live jazz experiences available to me every day during this festival, within a ten minute bike ride of my fornt door, in this beautiful medieval town. Today, Janette Mason trio and Nicolas Meier quartet in a beautiful church, both were great gigs. On Thursday a very good jazz viola player appeared in my local pub and had the audience captivated. It's like jazz city !

  6. Anonymous 2 here: blandness plus censorship? It's precisely such denial of debate that devalues jazz and impedes true understanding of the value of the music. Be brave!

  7. Anonymous 2 I'm rapidly losing you here.

    Surely you're not accusing Soweto Kinch of being bland? Beg pardon, that doesn't stack up at all.

    And, er, who's censoring whom here? What's all that about?

    Can't we just agree that the Oxford Jazz Festival – which among British festivals distinguishes itself by having a higher proportion of UK artists than most- in its third year is gaining confidence and momentum?

  8. LJ, looks like blogspot, or perhaps your overworked team of sub-editors (too much ligging at Oxford?), failed you. This intervening post never appeared. My apologies, if it now does, therefore, for suggesting censorship. But yes, of course SK is bland – we just hear rearranged clichés of protest, no? More below.

    The missing post:

    There's nothing brave or exciting in subscribing to the lazy eclecticism that riddles arts programming today and is reducing jazz festivals around the UK to musical convenience stores – a bit of everything and little of it exceptional. Such programming (and I'm sure there's good run-of-the-mill stuff at Oxford too) seems often to be the opposite of brave – an unimaginative, one-size-fits-all approach, whose main object seems to be ticking stylistic diversity boxes and attracting audiences – neither motive demonstrating artistic vision. Diversity, or, as LJ has it, many-strandedness, is a much over-vaunted concept, not of itself of any artistic value and more often a political than artistic gesture.

    And rap and hip-hop brave? The forms are going on 40 years old, hidebound by tired conventions and well trodden by jazzmen from George Russell to Branford Marsalis decades ago. And what has the terrificness or otherwise of Oxford got to do with the matter? That comment, if anything, underlines the secondary importance of music for the festival. What is this? Location, Location, Location? Phil and Kirstie to DJ the jazz lifestyle tent next year?

    The review was fine, as far as it went, but failed to set SK in a historical context that might have generated a more balanced appraisal. But critical breadth, and the issues raised above, are conspicuously absent from the bland affirmations that constitute 95% of the discussion of jazz these days. Where once in jazz there was often fierce critical debate and artistic innovation we now hear the sound of a mature yet creatively bankrupt business preening itself in a register redolent of the marketing of DFS Sofas. It's attracting, judging by the responses to SK's freedom rap invitation, similarly indolent audiences. In place of cosy and parochial leftwing whipping boy Cameron, why not Mugabe, Gbagbo or Gaddafi? Wouldn't they would have been braver (heaven forbid, more provocative) choices?

  9. Interesting, if somewhat wordy, political analysis anonymous 2. And your point is? The music and the sentiment didn't appeal to you? Well it didn't much to me either, but I applaud the choice of the organisers to provide us with a good mixed bag events and it certainly belonged in a jazz festival.

    To deal with location…of course it's important. We're only 60 odd miles from London, but we might as well be a world apart when it comes to an eclectic choice in music. For 4 days the jazz festival gave us choice, variety and accessibility.

    Not bad I'd say.

  10. soweto improvises words in his rap exactly in the same way he improvises notes and harmony from scales over changes during his sax solos, he's operating on a heavy duty level at both of these skills, and, whatever you think of his music as a whole is fine, but I know him personally and know for a fact this guy has done more homework that pretty much anyone I've ever met on the UK scene, and he's always got his ear to the ground, every time we see each other we hip each other to all the killing stuff hitting in the jazz world and beyond, (he's sort of a walking encyclopedia when it comes to jazz history as well). soweto about a year back sat in with george garzone when he was on tour with myself and george was raving about him the rest of the tour, and george just doesn't rave about people… (you can check a small clip out on you tube of their meeting) they sparred for almost an hour… if this guy isn't a jazz musician who doesn't deserve to be playing at a jazz festival, then I'm not either.

  11. …and the room fell to a kind of hush! Thanks Michael, a pretty authoritative, well respected opinion I'd say, when it comes to 'Fit' for a Festival.

  12. I am so incensed!

    Speaking personally, Soweto Kinch isn't really my 'bag' either but that doesn't mean I feel any need to insult such a talent. So much of the criticism (in general terms) on this thread is unjustified.

    Paul Jefferies (a professional jazz bassist) put together a programme that had something for everyone in terms of musical taste, from well known, and up and coming professional jazz musicians. The fact that many of the performances are held at interesting and unique venues is part of the attraction.

    Paul works tirelessly for many months beforehand and solidly over the 4-day Festival with Alissa Robinson & Max Mason to host a Festival that at best draws even. Musicians are paid and treated well, unlike the aforementioned co-founders.

    I'm sure they'd be delighted to hear from anyone who thinks they can do better on the same terms!

  13. Have listened to these intriguing opinions and thank you for them – I feel (being the guy who programmed all 3 of the Oxford Jazz Festivals) I should now speak up: In a sense all of your comments have relevance and I applaud them – the very fact that people are putting digit to keyboard demonstrates, to me at least, that Jazz and the purpose of jazz festivals is generating debate and encouraging debate in everything from social awareness, through the commercialism of music to the very music itself! Great – I love it. I spent nearly 9 months working on programming and let me assure you it was not done on whim or with making money in mind. I see nothing wrong with embracing British Jazz as a theme and am proud of the breadth of styles we were able to offer our visitors. Let's not overlook the fact that Soweto was only one act (albeit our headline on Friday). We also included acts without preceding reputations; a broad palette of acts representing a massive range jazz colours and styles with some of those pushing the very edges of the jazz idiom and we make no apologies for that – can you imagine 60 performances of only Bop, or 60 of only Free etc, etc? There really would have been an outcry from the jazz police, not to mention a thundering drop in ticket sales. As for the comments about SK, I couldn't have put my argument better than Micheal Janisch – SK is one of Brit Jazz's best current improvising musicians, period and his band if it chose to could I'm sure shine in any jazz style, they just happen to be creating their own particular blend and it appeals to many, involves more and excites in a way that so many don't – that's largely why we invited him to play. The Oxford Jazz Festival believes that it does a good job of programming; we aim to create opportunities for jazz music to inspire, for established as well as newcomer musicians to perform in an 'inspired environment' and introducing an ever widening public to Jazz as a form of music which doesn't have to be over-intellectual or scary – if 'Anonymous' would like to meet and debate, or better still give thoughts on how he could get the balance between getting great music into a festival and not lose money in these incredibly tough times, I'd love to hear from him or her – you can reach me via the Oxford Jazz Festival site :). To HB – thanks for your informative and inciteful reviews.

  14. A comment from Mike Vitti by email

    I find these kind of comments by Anonymous 2 quite disturbing. If you speak to any musician (not just jazz artists) they will tell you that there is a very real need to move music and genres on.

    Soweto Kinch is a fantastic example of this, his fusion of improvisational playing, rapping and reggae, not to mention his outstanding skills as a saxophonist make him exciting and unique. Artistes such as Soweto and the now sadly departed Guru managed to highlight jazz in a way that not many others achieve and bring it to a greater audience.

    Surely jazz is all about experimentation, let me remind you of Miles Davis’ 1991 CD ‘Doo bop’, this was produced by hip-hop producer Easy Mo B, does that make Mile wrong? Or does that make Miles an innovator? Miles, Coltrane, Monk, Hancock etc were the first exponents of experimental music; did that make them wrong too? Discounting his playing, what makes Soweto different? He is young, talented and unique, like the others I’ve just mentioned were when they did it. I have found over the years that rappers such as Big Daddy Kane who features on Quincy Jones’ CD ‘Back on the block’, US 3 and Stetsosonic have their roots firmly planted in jazz. Likewise New Orleans player Trombone Shorty is doing something similar to great acclaim right now.

    Freddie Hubbard and Donald Byrd flirted with jazz funk in the 70s and 80s and one of Byrd’s finest pieces of work (in my humble opinion) ‘Places and spaces’ was released on the Blue Note record label, does that make them wrong? I’m afraid I have to say that views and opinions such as these are suffocating this art-form. Let it breathe and move on. You always have the choice not to listen to it and choose something else.

  15. Anonymous – says it all really! It is all too easy to criticise in this way if you aren't prepared to stand by your views afterwards.

    I don't like everything Soweto does either, but he is pushing the boundaries and drawing a new audience into jazz. For that alone he should be applauded.

    And sorry, what precisely is wrong with including commercial considerations when booking artists anyway? Those artists have got to be paid, and that has got to come from somewhere. Ultimately the books have got to balance, and that only happens if people want to come to see the artists you have booked.

  16. Of course Soweto is deserving to play a Jazz Festival, he is one of the most gifted altoists, he'd roast most people off the stage.

    The argument is that of modernists Vs. traditionalists. It is very patronizing to criticize people who do play other genres as well as Jazz as being preoccupied. What about what Robert Glasper is doing?

    Soweto is a brilliant jazz musician, although personally I do think he should stay away from Hip-Hop because he is not a great rapper or beat maker, (at least when compared to his sax playing). This is evident by his complete lack of presence in the UK Hip-Hop scene.

  17. Hmmm, I guess Anonymous 2 will be travelling up to London to the Royal Opera House this time next year instead of mixing with the hoi polloi of the Oxford Jazz Festival.

    Well at least there's less chance of having to sit through the performance of someone insolent enough to be pushing those nice staid boundaries. And, I guess you'll find the ROH upholstery a lot more plush or at least is should be with all that Arts Council funding they get.

    Anyway, keep doing what you're doing Soweto, and as well as embracing worthwhile criticism take note that history shows us that most innovative artists receive a little bit of stick now and again particularly from those who are less receptive and possibly lacking in vision.


  18. Oh dear, Anon 2's whole point is that SK isn't a groundbreaker not that he shouldn't be, though those on the edge of jazz or lately come to it may not know or may wish to ignore this and that misunderstanding is causing a whole lot of reflex reaction here. As he says, the mixing of jazz, hip-hop and rap goes way back, as anyone on the scene in the 80s knows. There are too many people out there commenting who don't have that knowledge. If you re-read his post, he's not against innovation but against faux-innovation and the tendency nowadays to hype up everything in jazz without checking the history.

  19. Thank You Anonymous 5 for trying to raise the tone.

    “he's not against innovation but against faux-innovation and the tendency nowadays to hype up everything in jazz without checking the history.”

    Yes you have a point, but sorry: what Anonymous 2 did was to:

    1) question Soweto's “fitness for a jazz festival” (I hate that word, it's a slur)-

    2) implicitly in that statement, show disdain for the judgment of the organizers.

    What's to praise in that?

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