INTERVIEW: Soweto Kinch (Trio and big band concerts and workshop, 2016 Cambridge Jazz Festival)

Soweto Kinch at Cheltenham in 2016.
Photo copyright John Watson/ jazzcamera.co.uk

SOWETO KINCH is a headliner at this year’s second Cambridge Jazz Festival, where he will not just be playing a gig with his trio, but will effectively be in an artist-in-residence role, working as soloist with the Cambridge University Jazz Orchestra and running a workshop with members of Resolution 88 (full details of all three events below). 

He spoke to Sebastian about his new album “Nonagram”, about his regular radio presenting for BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Now – the show has been running since April – and about the Cambridge events.

LondonJazz News: You’re going to be running a workshop in Cambridge, how do you approach that?

Soweto Kinch: To some extent, I like to meet people where they’re at, and to hear what their concerns as musicians might be. So I often start with quite generic warm-up games or musical exercises that just allow me to hear where people are at. From my experience it’s largely about affirmation and confidence and knowing what the things you have to build on are. Perhaps jettisoning a lot of assumptions about having to be perfect and having to be right. And at the end, leaving at the end of it with a sense of possibility. Those are the things I like to happen at the end of my workshops.

LJN: Presumably there were mentors like that, in your own background?

SK: Absolutely. So many, so many. I mean, I’ve cited my meeting with Wynton Marsalis at the age of thirteen as one of those moments. It wasn’t a formal workshop at all, I played a little bit of piano, he listened. I just basically felt a massive pat on the back, like, ‘you go kid, keep going.’ That’s all I needed at that stage.

LJN: Andy Hamilton perhaps?

SK: Again, these are not formal workshops, but seeing him play virtually every Monday at the Bear pub in Birmingham, Alan Cross hooking that up, and all sorts of other jazz musicians around him, like Steve Ojeoh… that was hugely inspiring. That’s a form of teaching.

And if I could impart that to people, just ‘this is what’s possible, not I’m going to go away and practise six/seven hours,’ which is what would happen to me. The sense of not being intimidated but actually, these are the realms of possibility, your music can go in any direction that you choose. You have that much power and validity as a creative. Use it.

LJN: So it’s about having faith in the students and their capacity to search for – and to find – things for themselves…

SK: We’ve had generations, decades now of a sort of unspoken mantra – ‘give the people what they want, do what the market says.’ And it seems to have filtered down from our politics right down to our creativity. You know, you do some sort of focus group and just give people a watered down version of what you think they can understand. Whereas artists traditionally, for hundreds of years, have been creators, purveyors of sounds that people haven’t heard yet. You know, leading the new direction, and I think that’s a power that we need to reclaim. I’m certainly keen to spread that message in workshops.

LJN:  For your new album Nonagram, where did you record?

SK: It was recorded on 1st and 2nd June this year at the Old Battery Studios, Assault & Battery 2 it’s called now, in Willesden. Tony Platt was the producer again, the old crew, Ray Staff mastering. It’s absolutely wonderful to have maintained those relationships for four albums now.

LJN: The bassist is Nick Pini, and the drummer is on the album is …Greg Hutchinson

SK: Yes. The legend that is…!

LJN:  How often do you get together with him?

SK: Couple of times a year. Actually, we started a loose conversation eight, nine years ago, when he was playing with Joshua Redman and Myspace was still a big thing. All hanging out in the bar after Joshua’s gig, talking hip hop, chopping it up, he starts beating a beat on the table like we’re in school, I start freestyling, he presses record on the laptop, uploads this completely spontaneous freestyle to Myspace and gets like, a few thousand views and likes from it so… ‘we’ve gotta do something – next year – we’ve gotta do something – you know, next year we really should do something…’

LJN: He is special….

SK: Phenomenal musician, but also in terms of language I think there are few people who understand the jazz language as well as the hip hop language and understand the nuances within it. Too often, you hear someone playing hip hop and they’re like ‘right I know this, I’ve got it, turn my cap backwards, play really loud and think I’m a gangster’ and all those assumptions sometimes come through, somebody’s impression of how they should play hip hop as opposed to somebody who you can tell has grown up steeped in its nuances and steeped in its culture.

LJN:  And the drummer in Cambridge is ….

It’s David Hodek, who I’ve played with a lot in Slovakia. He’s a young cat, I think he’s still nineteen years old, but another phenomenal talent who understands I think the world of hip hop and jazz. It’s a new generation of cats coming through for whom it’s not genre-shifting any more it’s just playing good music.

LJN:  How has Nonagram evolved from your previous work and where is it different?

SK: For me Nonagram has quite organically led on from some of the projects I was doing before. So if I was considering the seven deadly sins with The Legend of Mike Smith, this album is much more about sonic healing. If that was really text heavy and lyrically dense, this is more instrumental in its focus.

And also stylistically it reflects some of the collaborations that I’d done in the interim. So I worked with a great choreographer called Ivan Blackstock and he commissioned me for his piece A Harlem Dream. And he integrated trap dance, a modern hip hop sound, with jazz, that he knew that I was into. I guess being pulled in different directions creatively inspires you to do stuff, like ‘oh that works actually, I’m going to keep that and do that in my own project.’

LJN: From the tracks I have heard there is a cloaking of the voice in a texture?

SK: Absolutely. I think what has inspired me is using perhaps some of the techniques of straightahead in a more contemporary sonic world and vice versa. Doing things like layering and looping within an acoustic jazz context, which I’ve done on this album. It’s helped me to blur the lines of distinction really between genres, it’s really what my ears are telling me to do. If there’s technology that allows me to create polyphony with one saxophone, why wouldn’t I use it? My ears are telling me that’s a cool idea.

LJN:  I thought of Casey Benjamin for example….

SK: I’d say there’s lots of people I’ve gleaned inspiration from… Courtney Pine and EWI’s and what they’ve been doing with virtual reed instruments for decades now. Michael Brecker and Steve Williamson. You know some great guys, David Stephens, a great New Yorker who also plays EWI really well.

LJN:  But you’re not doing EWI….

SK: No, but I’ve managed to find a Helicon box which I really enjoy, which can synthesise the sound of a live saxophone, so the vocal treatment box but I can do all sorts of funky things with it with live saxophone and I really enjoy that.

LJN:  There’s a mention Steve Coleman in press release…

Yeah maybe, perhaps. He’s come up a couple of times in conversation, flattering comparisons are really appreciated, the impact that everyone from Greg Osby, of course Steve Coleman, made to our understanding, hermeneutics… And I guess re-appropriating ancient Egyptian knowledge as well for the modern times, there’s some really profound contributions. I’ve taken, I hope, a deliberately less esoteric approach to it as well because I want a lot of the odd time signatures to be felt by the audience. I want people to be spontaneously tapping their feet and, you know, feeling it before working out ‘oh your song’s in 7’ or ‘this song’s in 5.’ The approach is more mantra-like than the pure cerebral game of ‘oh this is hard to play.’

LJN:  How has your recent evolution as a broadcaster affected you as performer?

SK: Well it’s interesting that this is the least vocal of my albums, isn’t it? It’s, as I mentioned before, a kind of organic evolution for me – let me see how much I can use sound to say the things that I would say with words before, and leave people a blank canvas to draw their own conclusions. I thought this album would allow me to do that. But more broadly, I’d pretty much finished the album, writing it, before I’d started broadcasting with Jazz Now, but I think there will be an effect just in terms of hearing a greater panoply of jazz, a broader church of jazz, from Tord Gustafsen to Wynton Marsalis, you know, Ezra Collective, what’s happening in this city and in all sorts of far-flung parts of the world that we don’t expect to hear jazz as well. It’s affirming but also inspiring for my own creativity. (pp)

With thanks to Naoise Murphy for the audio transcription


 1) Trio gig – Nonagram – Hidden Roms, Jesus Lane, Thursday 24th November BOOKINIG LNK

2) Big band concert – With CUJO – Mumford Theatre at Anglia Ruskin Saturday 26th November  – BOOKING LINK

3) Workshop –  Music Recital Room at Anglia Ruskin Sunday 27th November  –  BOOKING LINK

(Quote from Festival Director Roslin Russell) “The workshop is intended for all ages (grade 4+) who are interested in jazz, funk, hip-hop improvisation and composition. During the workshop Soweto Kinch will explain how to improvise confidently and how to avoid being constrained by convention. To participate in the workshop you should come with your own instrument and be ready to participate actively. 

Joining Soweto on the workshop will be three members of Resolution 88: Tom O’Grady (keys; recently toured with Incognito and Myles Sanko); Tiago Coimbra (bass; recently toured with Hiromi); and Ric Elsworth (drums).” 

London dates for Soweto Kinch’s trio are 606 Club Thursday 20th October as part of the club’s 40th anniversary, and the album launch in the Sackler Space at the Roundhouse on Saturday 29th October

Categories: miscellaneous

Leave a Reply