Babylon by Shabaka Hutchings
(Sons of Kemet, BBC Concert Orchestra. Queen Elizabeth Hall, November 13th 2012. LJF, BBC Radio 3 Commission. Review by Rob Grundel)
The jazz set joined with the classical set on Tuesday night as clarinettist/saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings debuted his BBC Radio 3 commission Babylon at Queen Elizabeth Hall. The BBC Concert Orchestra was performing it, conducted by Keith Lockhart, with Hutchings’ quartet Sons of Kemet: Tom Skinner and Sebastian Rochford on drums and Oren Marshall on Tuba. Hutchings took to the stage for a short pre-performance interview with compere Kevin Le Gendre. Asked about the piece Hutchings said that he wanted it to reflect ‘cosmopolitanism’ and to consider the origins of cities (as he had told Rob Edgar in a preview/ interview for LondonJazz. Hutchings wanted the jazz band to ‘intercept’ the orchestra.
It begins, quietly. It is a vivid work. The story of a city being built unfolds on stage – distant murmurings of a work site while Hutchings, on clarinet, plays bird cries: nature’s protest.
As the sun rises, the city starts its day – the machine gets into motion. In this section Hutchings doesn’t play but conducts, balancing the Sons of Kemet’s noise and rhythm against the orchestra’s. Sound artist Jason Singh and musician/ remixer Leafcutter John providing ambience evoking helicopters and digital communications.
And then the piece takes off: Hutchings, now on saxophone, pitching himself as the hero, trying to find his way in this world, blowing and cussing and pushing against the orchestral machine. During this key section, echoes of Hutchings’ theme/melodies/improvisations echo through the woodwind section while the remainder churn onwards and upwards.
Thesis and antithesis complete, I expected that for the finale the Sons of Kemet and the orchestra would come together in a final powerful rhythmic synthesis but instead the piece turns meditative – night falls on Babylon as it prepares itself for the next day.
The battle of the status quo vs the new didn’t just play out in the music. It played out on stage and even in the audience. After the piece Hutchings seemed slightly awkward as he followed the classical conventions – shaking first the conductor’s hand, followed by that of the orchestra’s leader. These motions felt contrived after the freshness and vitality of Babylon.
After the orchestra had left the stage, the Sons of Kemet finished with a short energetic set.
This quartet is incredible. Your eyes are constantly drawn to the interplay between Skinner and Rochford who are pushing and pulling each other but are maintaining driving polyrhythmic beats. Meanwhile, the versatile Marshall could be holding down the bass line, beat boxing or imitating a jaguar.
With two drunmmers, it is almost an entirely rhythmic outfit. At one point Hutchings plays a solo almost entirely around one note which drives the urgency and tension higher and higher. After each song the clapping, cheering and whooping goes for so long Hutchings has to interrupt it, so that they can get on with more music.
The audience is left with smiles on their faces, a new love/respect/fear of the city and two feet which want to dance.