Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings has been ubiquitous on the U.K.'s jazz and electronic scenes over the past half-decade with Sons of Kemet, Heliocentrics, and other bands. Earlier in 2016, he was nominated for a Mercury Prize -- as part of the Comet Is Coming -- for their debut full-length Channel the Spirits. He was a core member for percussionist Sarathy Korwar's Indo-jazz fusion offering Day to Day.
Wisdom of Elders rounds out Hutchings' portrait as a composer and bandleader. This date features the leader in the company of seven musicians from South Africa, performing his "psalm in nine parts." Recorded in a single day in a Johannesburg studio, this exercise in Afro-Futurism (Hutchings' term) is rooted in traditions: Afro-Caribbean folk and calypso, Sun Ra's space-age blues, John Coltrane's spiritual modalism, Miles Davis' spectral In a Silent Way, and of course, South African jazz tradition that came of age with the individual members of the Blue Notes and Abdullah Ibrahim.
"Mzwandile" commences with a trance-inducing ostinato by bassist Ariel Zomonsky followed by rhythms and counter rhythms from percussionist Gontse Makhene and drummer Tumi Morogosi. Hutchings (on tenor), alto saxman Mthunzi Mvubu, and trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni offer the melody, which is underscored and appended by vocalist Siyabonga Mthembu's lyrics and Nduduzo Makhatini's Rhodes piano. The tenorist takes an outside solo, ratcheting up the intensity over nearly 13 minutes. "The Observer" adds an element of bluesy, gospelized soul as Hutchings delivers the languid melody adorned by shimmering cymbals, acoustic piano, bowed bass, and skeletal trumpet. When Mthembu begins singing, it feels like a cross between "(Sometimes I Feel) Like a Motherless Child" and a slow "Wade in the Water." The singer and alto saxophonist entwine as the other horns extrapolate and the rhythm section picks up the tempo. Zamonsky's bassline holds down a nearly funky groove. "The Sea" is the set's longest cut at nearly 12 minutes. The criss-crossing dialogue between Afro-Caribbean percussion, popping progressive post-bop, and dramatic outward exploration features Mlangeni's trumpet break nearly stealing the show. "Give Thanks" is nearly a sprint as Hutchings, Mogorosi, and Makhene engage in fierce conversation that borders on Coltrane's "Interstellar Space" but offers circular rhythms and the trace of a (calypso) melody to return to. Closer "Nguni" is a minimal melodic statement -- offered by Hutchings and Mthembu -- graced by rolling tom-toms and hand percussion as the other horns and bass join in minimal embellishment. A Rhodes piano enters with a spectral harmonic statement but the main melody, like a responsorial chant, repeats throughout. Soloists come and go, but the lyrical comfort anchors the listener inside a deep well of emotion as blues and post-bop carve their initials in it. Wisdom of Elders is a major statement. Hutchings and band know how to bridge eras, musics, and musings on musical evolution. This album doesn't recast the past but celebrates it, as a building block in the bandleader's pursuit of 21st century spiritual Afro-Futurism as he defines it going forward.