CD Review | Soweto Kinch | Nonagram

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Soweto Kinch is acknowledged as a versatile and diversely capable musician. He received two MOBO awards in 2003 and 2007 for Best Jazz Act and two UMA awards (Urban Music Awards).

He straddles different worlds in his roles as musician, producer and MC and has supported acts including, KRS ONE, Dwele and Ty as well as written scores for Jonzi D’s hop hop theatre Production ‘Markus The Sadist’ and Sampad’s ‘In The Further Soil’.  He has featured in BBC documentaries, along with Goldie and Ms Dynamite and has his own projects,  ‘The Flyover Show’  which is a day of music and arts taking place under a flyover in Birmingham and ‘The Live Box’ – a series of jam sessions run across Birmingham. He has appeared at many festivals, released numerous albums and has a degree in Modern History from Oxford University as well as presenting jazz on BBC radio 3. He grew up in London and Birmingham, influenced by seeing great players, both new and older in London and the hip-hop musicians he met in both locations. Now his music combines African-American influenced music with urban and hip-hop rhythms and a touch of essential ‘Britishness’.

His music ranges from his 2010 release ‘The New Emancipation’ which garnered inspiration from  19th century work songs and early blues, centering around the development of music since slavery and ‘ The Legend Of Mike Smith’ in 2013, which explores emotive issues and crosses the hip-hop/jazz divide. He is energetic and makes jazz an accessible medium to both experienced listeners and new ones more accustomed to urban rhythms, amplifying the similarities that exist. In his music, there are plenty of references to jazz traditions yet also many that reach out to more modern tastes and ears.

His new album ‘ Nonagram’ is based on the concept of a nine-sided wheel. And sticks with that word ‘concept’. This album is conceptual with each piece a development of mathematical notations and ideas, enforcing the relationship many feel between mathematics and music. In the album notes it is stated that, “the album concept revolves around a nine-sided wheel or nonagon. Each musical point along the wheel explores features of different numbers or shapes. For instance, the track exploring ‘3’ uses frequencies such as 60Hz and relates it to 18o Hz (the internal and total angles of an equilateral triangle). Through shifting time signatures, harmony and tonality the music explores how sound can describe incorporeal ideas of mathematics, traveling through each point along a digital system; how music gives form to ideas that can’t be seen in nature or sacred geometry .”

The opening track ‘Centricity’ is funky, driven and the recurring little musical events are beautiful. It opens with ethereal tones before the theme is introduced and a dance rhythm, complete with electronic sounds and cymbals is developed.  Then the sax overplays with the theme again  and some very delicate off-beat and off pitch throw-ins partway through give this piece bite and texture  to make it not so much a repetitive dance number, which it could so easily become, but an interesting woven tapestry of mini sound scapes and funky jazz.

‘Crosswinds’ begins with an almost improvised section of the instruments layering over and under each other with the sax scaling up and down. Reminiscent of ancient jazz music it then develops, with the introduction of a slow, bluesy beat and then positively swings into a section with sax over the rhythm section like Hodges playing over Ellington, all very cool and the sax solos impressively over steady bass lines, with a lovely development into the rhythms and lilts reminiscent of big band scoring. It ends with a bagpipe-like sound created by the instruments playing in harmony.

‘Waved’ is a journey into conceptual pictures with distorted keyboard chords over which the electronic rhythms establish heralding a series of repeated riffs and a range of rhythm changes, all over a constant, rapacious chord run in the underscoring. The beat itself never wavers, perhaps reflecting that maths, the constant ineffable  truth of the numbers remains whilst we do our best to unravel, mix it up and play, yet it returns again and again, the underlying sequence is unchangeable.

‘Triangle’ is gorgeous. So many references, feels and tonality all layered before the listener and then wrapped up and delivered as a sparkly package to thrill and delight. Many layers, many voices, references and styles are reflected, from Rahsaan Roland Kirk style in some of the progressions, to a post bop and more modern feel, with delightful misplaced sevenths and little rivulets of sounds underneath, especially in the final third. Absolutely wonderful.

‘Soul Bearings’ begins with deep, murky sax over which a lighter tune develops. This is more your funky, groovy, dance style and  there are some sly little slurred notes over the very top. It takes on a 2/6 beat for a short period which gives a folksy feel before the return to a more jazzy tempo and beat.  This track is a bit like a jigsaw; many small pieces being fitted together this way, then that until finally they come to be some kind of a whole, yet not quite.  Not one for the faint hearted with the breaks in the theme and the rhythmic detail changing but to be admired is that there is so much change in the first place – so easy to mess with.

‘The Engine Drivers’ is fast, train like and the playing superb. Breathy, note-perfect and rapid, the train picks up speed, crosses points, toots the horn and whistles along at breakneck speed, not least, because the engaging sax travels at incredible speed up and down the keys.  The middle session led by the sax is completely attention grabbing and drives the song towards a piano interlude which is clever, with steady rhythm flown over by the right hand improvisation. A brief bass solo before the engine takes off again and hurtles to the end of the track.

‘Fore Caste’ begins with smatterings of weather forecasts before the vocal speaks of questions, ‘What’s it all for’?  Statements, ‘ tryin’ to find homes with no keys’ and other social observations. ‘remember when the deaf led the blind?’ we are asked amongst other questions on society expressed  including terrorism, weapon ships, paranoid, schizoid,  destroyed, people be afraid and other expressions which the music underpins and underlines.

‘Stems and Petals’ brings us back to another place, another musical landscape and initially, this sounds like a soft jazzy number until you hear the rhythms. From the opening, big brassy sound with repeated rills, it goes into swing with an enhanced swung beat, with the bass and percussion following offset rhythms, adding to the atmosphere, before the sax enforces a series of different rhythms following each other yet linked – just like an equation, all leading to the conclusion and resolution of that tricky rhythmic problem set before them before settling for a slow theme from the rhythm section, the piano setting a 5 beat meter which the sax then echoes.  Complex, tricky yet mesmeric.

‘Nostalgia’ is urban strength with its strong vocalised ideas and stories of how memories change us. Under the words, the music does its own very different things, which dips and waves, allowing the words to be heard.

‘King David’s Lyre’ is a sax led lesson in variety – many shapes in under 4 minutes. From long slow drawn out top notes to  rapid ascent and descent, all over a rhythm section which rises and falls like a wave , one moment all there, rippling and flowing over the top, the next receded so the sax is clear, precise and heard.  The final section is a gorgeous off-play of rhythm. Like all good tracks, the only complaint is it is too short.

‘In Plain Sight’ is a streetwise number, harsh words over grating, urban rhythms, grinding, driving, pulverising the listener with an onslaught of truths. The rhythm develops and increases in intensity, until we are flying briefly before the narrative brings us down to an unsavoury earth where people are deceived and yet triumph.

‘Sevenly’ is bop led, strong and with some devilish solo sequences from the sax of Soweto. Offset at times by interludes from the piano, which both take down the intensity and at the same time introduce and lead into a different rhythmic section with different emphasis. The bass section is close to divine and the final section with sax leading the rhythm section in a beautifully balanced set of sequences is lovely.

‘Mass Deseption’ is clever, not least for the fact it maintains a 7/4 emphasis for the first few phrases which is disconcerting if you are seeking an easy listen but the rhythm section soon eases the mind installing a gentleness – before they play with the rhythm again, emphasis changing until a sax blows over the top imparting calm and restoring a sense of, ‘ah’ I know what this is’. Then it changes again and – look at the title – there is no calm in this storm. A beautifully developed piece.

‘Mitosis’ introduces the theme from the start and this is played with over the length of the track with a deep bass groove underpinning the entire sequence, followed by ‘Montpellier’ which starts with quiet piano over which the keyboard stretches out before a chord progression introduces the quirky middle section with claps, funky bass rhythms and several tempo changes, neatly tail-ended by some devilish sax over the top.  ‘The Sum Of All Parts’ has a lovely bass solo during the introduction, somewhat lost in the curtailed chords striding over the top but the track develops and some impressive free playing, particularly from percussion over which the sax soars, laying down its own, delicate and fluid tune.  The sax playing is gripping and delivered with finesse.

‘At Peace’ is a soft, soulful number with a recurrent and pervasive groove, one to which the musicians return and tinker with but also develop as the piece unfolds. The heartbeat rhythm is continuous until the end section where just it plays under the keyboard theme.

‘Convergence to A Singularity’ is a wonderful track with which to close. Improvisation, free playing over staccato piano keyed rhythms, the piece sums up musically the sense of organised chaos coming together to create a whole. The rapid percussive delivery under the controlled sax of the middle section tells something of the universe’s make up and the final descent into silence is brilliant.

What can I hear? I can hear Sun Ra somewhere, grinning possibly at the fact that conceptual sounds are emanating from the younger members of the jazz scene. I can also hear improvisation and layer upon layer of sound development, which all combines to create an eccentric flow of ideas, overlacing and entwining, yet never losing the jazz. I can hear Courtney Pine with his linkage of jazz to modernity and I can hear something else; a heart! What Soweto does like no other is engage and there is something in this CD for every listener, whether familiar with hip-hop, soul or music so firmly grounded in jazz , it never loses sight of it even when it tries.  Every track deserves more to be said about it as there is so much development but a review is not a thesis. I would recommend finding this album for yourself.

The concept of the album is to link maths, music and healing and much is made in narratives surrounding it about the conceptualising of hidden worlds, numbers and harmonic theories but actually, for me, forget all of that, just open your ears and listen.  This is music created by a man who knows, enjoys and feels the rhythms and detail, which makes music – whether mathematically related, or not, it feels and sounds good to the listener. Repeated riffs, themes never lost in conversion and a steadfast grasp of the underlying truth. That is what matters and in that respect, Soweto just solved an equation.  I admit, I have not listened to much Soweto Kinch before. I have heard, ‘People With No Past’ and ‘Never Ending’ and ‘Banlieus Blues’ where Soweto plays with his quartet and none of these tracks allow him to soar on sax like these examples but perhaps that is the point in that music and maths are related not so much by an expression of ‘continuous self’ but combinations of many intricacies and so musicians playing together create a singular whole.

Soweto’s playing is chameleon-like.  He comes across as many personas; the bop style jazz player, the deeply observant urban voice, the traditional jazz rooted player and the musician who can combine it all together. The fact is Soweto manages to combine what is in his bones; the jazz, with what is in his culture, heart and observations; the rhythms of people, their ideas and ideology, thoughts and relationships. Largely he does this with this album. His music is interesting, encompassing, and at times sweet but always there is the theme, the return to the theme and something else, which is also in his psyche so strong, is it tangible – the jazz.  There is a good deal of old fashioned, easy  on the ears, simultaneous playing on this CD but coupled with the innovative use of  the notation on occasion and the counter rhythms often going on in the parts it becomes something else.  Sometimes, like ‘ Sum Of All Parts’ you could be in a jazz club mid-US in the 1960s yet at other times it is bang up to date with intricate, free playing and the urban music songs add to the contemporary feel. It combines good old-fashioned jazz music, superb playing and the embracing of modern technology to further explore the music.  Whether you understand maths or not, whether you understand music or not, this is definitely worth many listens.

Soweto Kinch – Alto/tenor sax, Vocals, Keys, /programming

Gregory Hutchinson – Drums

Nick Jurd- Bass

Reuben James – Piano

Label – Own Label and Store

Images: Soweto Kinch            


Last modified: July 15, 2018