At the Newport Jazz Festival in August, the audience who were mostly sitting in appropriately sized lawn chairs, started moving toward the stage, a sort of jazz mosh pit to welcome the Sons of Kemet. Imagine Duke Ellington’s orchestra at Newport in 1958 when you are considering the audience dancing to Shabaka Hutchings’ music. Think of the valve trombone solo of Juan Gonzalez on "Caravan," a riveting and riotous performance that got the audience out of their seats.
Jazz has always been the music that broke the rules both musically and socially but it has also been a music that swayed between intellectualism (Bill Evans) and crowd pleasing (Miles Davis).
This group of UK musicians who are creating another pathway for jazz are not leaning toward intellectualism or crowd pleasing but are instead marrying the two concepts by being authentic. Their experiences come from hip-hop, afrobeat, world music and avant garde jazz. They come from the African and Caribbean diaspora and they live in London, which despite Brexit, is a multicultural society with many different languages and cultures being the norm.
This new strain of jazz is similar to Dizzy Gillespie bringing Chano Pozo’s Cuban rhythms into his music. John and Alice Coltrane, Miles Davis (in the 80s), Pharoah Sanders and Sun Ra are all influences to this group of UK musicians.
Edward Wakili-Hick, among other things, is the drummer for the now defunct group Sons of Kemet. He has worked with Angelique Kidjo, Alicia Keys, Bobby Watson, Edward Simon, Nubya Garcia and Kokoroko.
Hick’s new project is Nok Cultural Ensemble, a modern sonic exploration of African and Caribbean rhythms. It introduces the Nok Culture, a civilization that thrived in Nigeria 2,500 years ago which among other things, produced hyper modern sculpture.
The Nok terracotta sculptures were discovered in an area of modern-day Nigeria known as the cradle of Africa's monumental sculpture. Excavations have uncovered many hundred terra cottas and fragments which were central to rites performed in the Nok civilization which is the oldest known figurative sculptures south of the Sahara. The sculptures are known for the triangular eyes and perforated pupils, noses, mouths and ears in an abstract way that is as modern as Thelonious Monk and as ancient as the civilization that produced it. These sculptures were likely used as funeral rituals which explains in part the detailed hairstyles that adorn many of the figures. The years have worn away the glaze of these artifacts, but the grainy surface also adds to the modernity of the works. Among the sculptures, there is a man singing with another man settled between his legs which is possibly the earliest depiction of musical performance in sub-Saharan Africa.
This culture inspired Hick to convene the collective Nok Culture Ensemble to provide a deep dive into historical instruments made from goat skins, trees and early iron smithing.
Hicks is from Nigeria and lives in the UK. His collaborators (not all the musicians contribute to each composition) include Onome Edgeworth from Kokoroko, Theon Cross from the Sons of Kemet, Nubya Garcia and Angel Bat Dawid among others.
The instruments on display feature drums from West Africa, Mauritius, Ghana, Togo and Benin. These are barrel drums, tambourines made from goat skins, ekwe made from tree trunks and the gankogui, a bell to sort cows in the fields.
It is barely noticeable that this brew of instruments is minus a saxophone, trumpet and piano because the music is so interesting. The relationship of these musicians to Kokoroko, an eight-piece musical group led by Sheila Maurice-Grey, the Ezra Collective, a British jazz quintet, the Sons of Kemet and Pharoah Sanders work with Sam Shepherd, the British producer is immediately obvious.
On "Awakening," the listener is taken outside, to a fire, wet grass, with a matured Theon Cross playing discreetly behind rather than in front of percussion. It is meditative and delightful.
"Y.T.T.T (You telling the truth)" with some of the same vibe as "Awakening," is pared down and lovely. This is what it means to be young, black and British right now.