Alexander Hawkins Credit: Emile Holba

In the Reader‘s coverage of this weekend’s Chicago Jazz Festival, John Corbett wrote a wonderful profile of trailblazing South African drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo, a founding member of the Blue Notes and the kind of versatile, curious percussionist that only comes along once or twice in a generation. His performance on Sunday with 5 Blokes is one of the festival sets I’m most excited about—not just because he’s talented and historically important, but also because every member of his band is terrific. The Blokes include reedist Jason Yarde and ferocious free-jazz bassist John Edwards, but I’m especially thrilled to see the Chicago debuts of pianist Alexander Hawkins and reedist Shabaka Hutchings, two of the most inspiring figures to emerge in British jazz in decades.

Shabaka Hutchings
Shabaka HutchingsCredit: courtesy of the artist

Hawkins, a self-taught player from Oxford, has catholic taste and the range to match: he’s worked with experimental funk band the Heliocentrics and great Ethiopian composer Mulatu Astatke, and he’s equally confident playing free improv or knotty postbop influenced by the likes of Duke Ellington, Elmo Hope, and Cecil Taylor. He loves playing music in all kinds of styles, and it shows in the natural-feeling, lived-in way he does it.

Last year Hawkins released Leaps in Leicester (Clean Feed), a series of purely improvised duets with brilliant saxophonist Evan Parker, a free-jazz pioneer who’s generations older. Hawkins’s mournful melodies, gliding rhythms, and splintery phrasing bring out a relatively lyrical approach from his partner. Both men are superb free improvisers, united by a grounding in jazz tradition that gloriously colors these duets. As you can hear below, on “Gambade” they share a sublime, easy connection, not just pushing each other but also accepting each nudge elegantly and fruitfully.
, which consists almost entirely of Hawkins’s compositions, rendered by an inventive sextet on the first album and a 13-piece band on the second. The sextet disc is the more composition oriented of the two, and opens with a funky, hurtling treatment of “For the People,” an overlooked tune by idiosyncratic percussionist and Chicago native Jerome Cooper. Hawkins’s 5 Blokes bandmate Hutchings, who also plays in the sextet, uncorks a wonderfully jagged, halting solo over stabs and licks from the pianist as well as from violinist Dylan Bates and guitarist Otto Fischer.

Many of the original tunes bring to mind the multipronged melodic approach of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time band—on “[C]all (Part 1),” embedded below, drummer Tom Skinner and bassist Neil Charles bang out a driving postdisco beat that the rest of the group layers with a series of related but independent melodies. The ballad “[W]here” is much more subtle, with Hawkins playing spacious, Sun Ra-like chords behind probing, tender lines by Bates, Hutchings (on bass clarinet), and Fischer.

The album featuring the larger band is also composition driven, but the wonderfully loose arrangements give the players more latitude. Each piece tends to build in open sections, and even it’s charted out, Hawkins lets his group personalize the writing with improvisation. The whole release is one of the most exciting, idea-packed albums of the year, and curious listeners would do well to make note of the musicians bringing it to life.

Hutchings has been making inroads into the U.S. since playing at New York’s Winter Jazz Festival in January, but this is his first visit to Chicago. He’s got the same kind of versatility and wide-open ears as Hawkins, though his sound doesn’t suggest a similar study of early jazz modes—he’s equally comfortable playing free improvisation and electronically driven funk. One of his longest-running groups is Sons of Kemet, a propulsive quartet powered by two of London’s most creative and agile drummers, Tom Skinner and Sebastian Rochford; tubaist Theon Cross provides the bass lines. The band’s most recent album is a few years old, but Lest We Forget What We Came Here to Do (Naim Jazz) still sounds just as exciting as it did the first time I put it on. Its springy, tightly wound grooves provide an excellent platform for Hutchings, who alternates between tenor saxophone and bass clarinet; he plays the latter on “Tiger,” blowing stuttery lines in unison with the tuba, devising a UK twist on New Orleans parade music that’s a frenetic as it is precise. Elsewhere the group thrillingly recalibrates sounds from the Caribbean—Hutchings spent a good chunk of his youth in Barbados. “Afrofuturism,” which you can hear below, borrows from a Barbadian form known as tuk, where connections to calypso are audible.
Hutchings’s 2016 album Channel the Spirits (Leaf) is by his solo project the Comet Is Coming, where he does everything himself, exploring a groove-based post-dancehall sound similar to that of a collective he’s worked in called Melt Yourself Down. But while that combo is more pop focused, with prominent vocals, the Comet Is Coming is strictly instrumental, its murky post-Jamaican rhythms muddied by distortion, synthesizers, and jacked-up beats—in fact, his reeds are often buried deep in the mix, functioning more a textural element or melodic accent. On “Star Furnace,” he adds an almost Romani tint to his clarinet flurries.
The project that seems to be the closest to Hutchings’s heart of late (and the one that’s attracted the most attention) is Shabaka & the Ancestors, where he works with a talented, versatile group from South Africa. On last year’s Wisdom of Elders (Brownswood), recorded in Johannesburg, he works in various soulful jazz modes, including driving grooves soaked in postbop propulsion and the moody, churning sound of the early-60s Miles Davis Quintet. The closing track, “Nguni,” reaches for meditative austerity, with cycling licks that summon the spirit of early-70s spiritual jazz a la Alice Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders; “Mzwandile,” which features gorgeous chanted vocals by Siyabonga Mthembu, suggests a 70s jazz-soul exploration. Mthembu also turns up on “The Observer,” embedded below, where he channels the distinctive vibe of Chicago great Terry Callier.
Today’s playlist:

Gelsey Bell & John King, Ciphony (Gold Bolus)
Santos Silva/Wodraschka/Meaas Svendsen/Berre, Rasengan! (Barefoot)
Quiver, Small Worlds (Tone List)
Joda Clement, Sea Songs (Caduc)
Freddie Hughes, Send My Baby Back . . . (Kent)