Your Queen Is a Reptile signals the arrival of Caribbean-born, London-based saxophonist/clarinetist Shabaka Hutchings' Sons of Kemet on Impulse! The band's unusual lineup -- saxophone/clarinet, tuba, and two or three drummers -- fits with the historic label's revolutionary tradition forged by John and Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, etc. Hutchings is no mere descendent of his heroes, however. Over nine years he's amassed dozens of musical credits (including work with Mulatu Astatke and Yusef Kamaal) and leads three different bands: Sons of Kemet, Shabaka and the Ancestors, and the electro space-jazz outfit Comet Is Coming.
This is Sons of Kemet's third album. Its title refers to the white patriarchy as made manifest in royal and political matriarchies (the queen and Theresa May), and their unrepentant racism toward immigrants. The nine tracks pay homage to iconic black women from Angela Davis and Harriet Tubman to social psychologist Mamie Phipps Clarke and Hutchings' own great-grandmother Ada Eastman. Despite the charged nature of the concept, these sounds are not easily categorized as "angry." In fact, if one knew nothing about the motivation here, she would swear these sounds reflected only black celebration and joy. Herein lies the terrain where the carnival tradition of the Caribbean stretches west and north simultaneously to New Orleans marching bands and South London's adventurous, well-integrated contemporary music scene; it's where modern avant-jazz meets funk, folk tradition, grime (thanks to two raps by poet Joshua Idehen), and reggae (courtesy of toaster Congo Natty). "My Queen Is Ada Eastmen" opens with rolling double-drum kits (Tom Skinner and Seb Rochford -- the latter alternates with or complements Eddie Hick and Moses Boyd) while Theon Cross' tuba establishes a hypnotic bassline and Hutchings weaves a labyrinthine, almost snaky melody. They dig deep into reggae with "My Queen Is Mamie Phipps Clarke," as Natty delivers a Rasta poem with Hutchings' tenor winding around him amid stretched-out dub effects. "My Queen Is Angela Davis" equates, knotty, martial, yet funky rhythms as Cross and Hutchings exchange a contrapuntal lyric line that touches on carnival music and Arabic double-harmonic scales. While "My Queen Is Nanny of the Maroons," titled for the famed Jamaican anti-colonialist, uses a hypnotic Nyabinghi rhythm, the tuba lays down a rocksteady bassline and Hutchings breathes out a gentle modal ballad. Nubya Garcia adds a second saxophone to "My Queen Is Yaa Asantewaa" amid an incantatory Ghanaian-style drumming and declarative tuba. On "My Queen Is Albertina Sisulu," the drumming and stretched harmony delineate where South African township jive meets avant-jazz (and traces a direct line from Brotherhood of Breath). Hip-hop, funk, and Fela all meet in closer "My Queen Is Doreen Lawrence" (titled for the Labor MP), with punchy tenor lines, roiling snares, and kick drums with bleating below the floor bass notes. Your Queen Is a Reptile is easily Sons of Kemet's most compelling outing. It offers inspired stylistic contrasts, canny improvisation, and killer charts. It's tight, furious, joyous, and inspirational.