Droppin’ Science – Saxophonist and MC Soweto Kinch talks maths and music…

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Really, this album is about unity in the face of division,” says double MOBO-winning saxophonist, MC, DJ and radio presenter, SOWETO KINCH, explaining the concept behind his latest long player, ‘Nonagram.’ It’s the Birmingham-based jazz man’s fifth album and the follow-up to 2012’s  epic double CD, ‘The Legend Of Mike Smith,’ which, incidentally, is soon to be revived as a travelling stage show. But ‘Nonagram’ finds this former Oxford scholar (he studied Modern History) exploring the relationship between geometry and sound.

Essentially, it’s about the connection between numbers, music and healing,” states Kinch, “and the fact that you can’t see music or numbers but you get the sense that they’re there. There are sonic and fundamental laws that govern how we feel: that make us on edge or at harmony or peace. That was something that I was keen to explore on this album. Also, in this age of division and polarisation based on race, class and gender, there are some really fundamental, universal truths that I think that numbers and sounds hold for us.

While the main thrust of ‘Nonagram’s’ conceit sounds a tad abstruse, perhaps, to the layman – especially those not conversant with geometry and mathematics – you don’t have to be cognizant of the theorizing behind the music to truly appreciate what Kinch is doing. Just in terms of its listening appeal, Kinch has produced a very direct, down-to-earth collection of songs where post-bop jazz improv of the highest order and socio-political, ‘conscious’ hip-hop intersect in an accessible yet meaningful way.

In a revealing interview with Charles Waring’s SJF, the 38-year-old Mercury Music Prize-nominated musician and radio presenter of BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Now programme talks in depth about ‘Nonagram’ and other aspects of his career…



Tell us about ‘Nonagram’…

I was very conscious that I wanted the whole album to be an exploration around a wheel – not around the nonogram as a shape but as a wheel. So starting at the top of it going all the way round. Song titles suggested themselves. At a single point, what does that sonically sound like, I thought? What is a straight line between two separate points sound like? What does a triangle sound like? That was the concept that led me and then after that it was just trying to be faithful to the music. Compositions try to birth themselves to you at quite a cryptic level and it’s our job as composers just to be receptive and have as open ears as possible.

In the press release for the album you mentioned ‘dark forces’ in the music industry and I’m fascinated to hear your take on that.

I think there are dark forces. There’s a connection between dark forces and market forces that we’re seeing – a callousness and disregard for humanity that the spirit of money has. This is personal and I don’t subscribe to conspiracy theories that there’s a dark cabal of puppeteers controlling everything, but I do believe that there’s music and sound which keeps us vibrating at a very low frequency, one  based on fear or more usually consumption, it’s just a really catchy hook that makes you want to buy stuff, I don’t know why, as opposed to, this is music which is not necessarily esoteric and deep but it makes me feel something that expands my consciousness. And whilst there won’t be lofty aims I think that’s something that underpins the new album, the idea that you should just feel differently and not necessarily know why. You should feel something differently about the world after hearing something in an odd time signature or hearing something that modulates.

Is ‘Nonagram’ an attempt to counteract the increasingly dumbed-down pop that the world is spoon-fed?

To some extent, yeah, and it’s also an attempt to engage in things that I think that pop music does very well; it understands how to create fear words and I’ve used some of those ideas in the album as well, so it’s using the power of pop for good, rather than evil (laughs). That’s what I’m looking at it as. The idea that certain things are catchy but what’s catchy about them? If you’re going to repeat them like a mantra in your head then what’s the basic philosophy behind that mantra? And really this album is about unity in the face of division.

Out of the album’s seventeen songs, which are especially deep personal meaning for you?

To some extent they all do but I’d say that forecast is quite interesting because I was listening to all the pre-Brexit propaganda and was very conscious of how walled-in we are as a society; how violence and technology and TV give us the impression that we’re not really free and perhaps that the monolithic nature of political institutions means that we can never change them, and it’s been interesting what has happened with the Labour Party and more recently UKIP. The question ‘are we powerful or powerless?’ comes up and I think I express some of that in the lyrics of forecast because that’s quite personal.

Tell me about the musicians on the current record.

I’m really excited to have recorded with all of them. On drums is Gregory Hutchinson – who hasn’t he played with? He’s a who’s who of jazz and mainstream hip-hop and stuff. He’s played with Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, Betty Carter, Joe Henderson, and recorded with some of these legends and also Common and D’Angelo and he’s done a lot of hip-hop gigs. I don’t think there are many people who understand, not just the different stylistic implications, but the nuances of both hip-hop and jazz. Some people can play hip-hop but they don’t necessarily sound like they’ve grown up with it or are steeped in it. But I can tell that his appreciation of the culture runs very deep.

Then you have Reuben James on piano.

He’s a very interesting young guy. I love the way he plays music. I’ve known him since he was 14. I saw him perform in Birmingham about a year and a half ago and the thing I loved most about it was whilst he had the virtuosic touch and great dexterity and the music was great, he also had this lightness as a bandleader and this complexity in thought and simplicity in execution, which is a really hard thing to do with a jazz musician. I noticed that he had the skill of bringing people into the music who weren’t normally jazz acolytes. There’s a charisma that he exudes whilst playing that comes through and that’s something that actually that the album, some of the more repetitious, mantra-like things he does in the solos really helps make the point about polyrhythms and about cross-times, and he makes that really well.

What about Nick Jurd on bass?

I’ve been playing with Nick for four years. I think both his and my sounds evolve the more we play together and he really understands and makes the effort weeks before we go in to rehearsal to get his head into the concept. He takes his work very seriously. (Laughs). We’ve had so much fun getting ready even before the recording sessions were up, so yeah, I’m really happy with the guys that I assembled for the recording dates.

How did you present the songs to the rest of the guys in the band? Did you have lead sheets? How did you go about it?

A multiplicity of different ways actually. For some, it was very conceptual, like the last piece on the album, ‘Convergence To A Singularity,’ where I gave them those two tones that I described to you before, the external and internal angles of particular shapes, and I said those are the only tools that we have to improvise with. Go! (Laughs). And I had other songs where, it was just charts written out with some explanation about the theory behind it but not too much conceptual baggage because I wanted people to just hear it and infuse it with their own personality. And so Reuben, Nick and Greg all got behind the idea of music representing maths.

Let’s talk about some of the songs. Take ‘Stems and Petals,’ for example, what’s that about?

A lot of this is exploring number relationships and patterns that often exist in nature. A lot of flowers replicate petal formations with a particular numerical sequence. Five particularly are often the number of petals that you will see when flowers are sprouting and of course stems are solid and straight. But what I’ve done, throughout that piece is alternate between the time signature of four and five while keeping the pulse, the meter, between the two time signatures the same. So you’re hearing four against five and then five against four. I think nature, flowers, petals, do that. They, if you like, have a paradigm-shifting awareness, a consciousness, that’s like: at this point I’m a stem and now I’m going to shoot off and form another stem. There’s a kind of fundamental awareness of maths that must be completely intuitive to plants and nature and offers the path of least resistance often and that’s something that I’d like to hear and attempted to translate in audio terms. There’s a lot of that throughout the album. It’s often mathematical games that have started and then I’m exploring: what is hexagon trying to sound like, what is an octagon trying to sound like? (Laughs). That’s quite literal, so, the song ‘Triangle’ for example. I took the internal angles of an equilateral triangle at 60° and the sum total of all the angles, the external angles as 180°, and played them against each other so what you have is a low B to an F sharp, with an interval of a fifth, so if you like the triangle started out for me and I took it from there until my ears felt that it was right.

Of all the musicians working today who do you most feel a connection with?

Oh, so many people. I love what Marcus Strickland is doing at the moment. It’s hard not to mention Reuben and his band, the stuff I’ve heard with him, and Ed Richardson, who is a great drummer I’m playing with quite a lot lately too. I think it’s a time when a lot of guys I was coming up with and hearing and cutting my teeth to in jam sessions, are in a period of maturation. The music they’re making sounds less about chops and competition and more about profound life discoveries. Patrick Cornelius and Will Vincent, two people I know who are prodigiously virtuosic players, their music is now infused with a different sort of weight. Basically it comes through life experiences.

How much do you think you’ve grown in your music has developed or evolved since your last album, the sprawling double LP ‘The Legend of Mike Smith’?

I think there has been some personal evolution. I think I find increasingly, and you’ve probably noticed from the lyric count on this album, to let the sound speak for itself and let people make their own deductions about how they feel about the world. So I’ve been a little more diffuse and lyrically less dense in the things that I’m saying, even though there are specific ideas and beliefs behind them to allow people the joy of trying to extrapolate what that might be.

Going right back to the beginning, what fuelled your interest in music?

I grew up in a very artistically-weighted household. My father’s a playwright (Don Kinch) and my mother’s an actress (Yvette Harris) and I grew up around hearing a lot of music, be that song, drumming, and also hearing that music and art in general, have very strong cultural resonations and has important things to say about identity often too. That inspired me to make music and to realise that music isn’t just notes and sounds but actually it can communicate very powerful ideas about who you are and your place in the world.

What drew you to the saxophone in particular?

I’d say in terms of one event, going to a workshop at the aptly titled cultural centre in Handsworth where I’d been going since I was a kid. It was amazing just going in and seeing all these shiny instruments and being invited to try them out. And at that point, I played a little bit of clarinet for a couple of years in primary school. People said the saxophone is amazing and I didn’t know what one looked like until I saw it myself at the age of nine. I saw all these shiny buttons and polished brass and it was like okay, I need to get involved in some of that. Then it was a process of pestering my dad for the next four or five months to buy one and then a process of him pestering me to practice. I think it was around the age of 13 when things started to fall into place and I got the jazz bug and a penchant for jazz music and communicating through the saxophone.

Was there any particular recording that drew you to jazz?

I would probably say it was an event. Two events. Going to see Wynton Marsalis at Symphony Hall. Funnily enough, that was a building I was just in. And going with my father to the Edinburgh Festival and him taking a few jazz musicians. Will Gaines – rest in peace  – and Frank Holder, the classic percussionist who played with Joe Harriott, he’s quite a legend really in the country. So I went along with him and the thing with Will was that he was quite a funny guy, quite an itinerant jazz musician, in that mould, and he left loads of cassettes around the house at my dad’s. From that I heard Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker. There were loads of tapes and I’d raid them often and some of them were live off the radio that he’d bootlegged. From that point I really couldn’t get enough and I’d go to the library every Saturday and get a load of CDs and burn them onto cassette as well. It was an age when it was a path to enlightenment. I wanted to transcribe it and absorb all that knowledge and I got a love of John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie and all of that from that period.

Did your taste in hip-hop run parallel with that early enthusiasm for jazz?

Absolutely! You notice that in the music at the time. You’re talking early ’90 and mid-’90s and groups like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, The Far Side, the Freestyle Fellowship, and The Digable Planets who were all overtly using jazz breaks. ‘The Low End Theory’ (by ATCQ) had a solo from (noted jazz basist) Ron Carter on it.They’d got digital technology and they’d gone through James Brown sounds and beats and jazz was the next thing and it gave me a real hunger to discover where the  breaks came from. That’s largely why I think when I’m playing alto or tenor saxophone the tone that I went for was that raspy, eight-bit, crunchy saxophone sample from sounds that I heard on Black Moon records and on A Tribe Called Quest records as opposed to the smooth, shiny saxophone that was so popular in the ’80s. That was not my thing. Never my thing.

Older jazz fans sometimes have difficulty seeing the link between jazz and hip-hop…

Yeah, funnily enough, I can’t cite that example of Ron Carter enough. I don’t think some of the musicians got it but a lot of them did, more than were probably given credit for because there’s nothing new under the sun. Ahmad Jamal recorded a song in the ’50s where he played effectively what was a hip-hop groove and you could say that Cab Calloway was MC-Ing. I have an album by Don Redmond, a clarinetist and the reed man for Louis Armstrong in the 1920s, called ‘Shaking The African’ where he’s MC-ing, he’s rapping. When you hear the syncopation and the beats you realise that it’s a continuum. That’s something that capitalism is often not comfortable with but a lot of people are cool with it. It’s like what am I going to sell? Or how am I going to be able to package it? You can’t teach a course on it if it’s not got a clear start and end point.

You’re part of the team on BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Now, show. Has it given you a greater insight into the lives and music of other musicians, do you think?

Actually, yeah. What’s great about it is that it feels something that I feel qualified to talk about and ask questions on as a practitioner for the past 20 years. It’s also broadening my understanding of the compositional process, how other people come to think, the themes that they come to draw on, and talk of instrumentation. So it’s great to have a broadening of inspiration as well.

 Have you ever got to interview any of your heroes at all?

Oh yeah, a few times, and people that I’ve known from afar but didn’t know what they were like. I’ve spoken to Peter Erskine (drummer with Weather Report), which was illuminating. Ran Blake is in his nineties but has the heart and soul of a teenager (laughs). I want to be like Ran Blake when I’m in my nineties, that would be pretty cool. He’s tremendously open-minded and free thinking. And of course Branford Marsalis. We had a wonderful talk on the radio show. We’ve met a number of times in green rooms and stuff over the years and I know his opinions can sometimes be forthright but I agree with him and fundamentally disagree with him at the same time, so it’s good to have a respectful conversation with one of my heroes, absolutely. We touched on everything from Jay-Z and hip-hop ignorance to race politics in the US and the UK and I found it fascinating.

As far as the future goes and beyond this album, are there any other projects in the pipeline?

Absolutely. I’m going to bring back the theatre adaptation of ‘The Legend of Mike Smith,’ which was the album before this one. We’re going to be touring in venues up and down the UK from next spring, so we going to realise the theatrical spectacle that is ‘The Legend of Mike Smith’ with cast members in music and costume and all of that in Chats Palace in February in Hackney. And there will be more announcements about more dates in the next couple weeks.

What about the ‘Nonagram’ album? Will you be touring to promote it?

Absolutely. Yes, we got some tour dates and the album launch on the 29th October at the Roundhouse, which is the big commencement of the new chapter.




29th October Roundhaouse (Sackler Space)

18th November Dundee Jazz Festival

24th November cambridge Interntational Jazz Festival (Hidden Rooms)