British jazz from polar opposite sides of the spectrum are among the headliners for this year’s Colours of Ostrava International Music Festival in the Czech Republic, with other genres including alternative rock, electronic, world music, ethno-folk, blues, pop and contemporary classical; the festival is in its 20th edition, and this year aims to keep its reputation for lesser-known innovative artists above all.
The Comet is Coming is just that, as a London-based unit lead by saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings; however, for this group, he goes by the pseudonym King Shabaka. The other members are Betamax on drums, percussion and synthesizer, and Danalogue on keyboards, synthesizer, programming and percussion. Shabaka (born 1984) is at the forefront of futuristic jazz also with Sons of Kemet, and previously with Polar Bear, among the most experimental and influential for a refreshed jazz merged with club electronica; yet musically he is following giants including John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Courtney Pine. What makes Shabaka most remarkable is his devotion to a progressive 21st century jazz.
The Comet is Coming has a new album, “Hyper-Dimensional Expansion Dream” (Impulse), and it’s their hardest and fastest to date. True to its title, and buoyed by innovations in technology, it’s a boundless and expansive sound; one that old-fashioned jazz fans have never dreamed of. There are a few musical kin juggling jazz with electro-tech wizardry comparable to The Comet is Coming, as Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington, or Herbie Hancock’s “Future 2 Future” get close to this fireball.
For a back to earth contrast, another British jazz headliner for Colours is London-based Jacob Collier, who is a modern-day jazz-pop phenomenon for pushing jazz out of stringent borders of bygone eras. Maybe it could be called Bubble Gum jazz, but this is still meant in a good way, meaning it is simply a breath of fresh air for jazz to reach a younger and more popular audience. And why not, for a change?
His debut album “In My Room” (2016) was made from recordings that he did in his bedroom, yet it earned him two Grammy Awards and a Jazz FM award (UK digital radio) for best initiative of the year.
Collier (born 1994) is a self-taught talent, inventive and charming multi-instrumental musician, a composer and vocalist (a one-man-show) with a knack for making music with catchy pop ingredients, while jazz takes a place to the side, especially in his newest recordings. It’s a formula that worked for Paul McCartney (with or without John Lennon and those Beatles) after all, if you leave out all that jazz.
The McCartney comparison with Collier is useful, as Seun Kuti is closer to John Lennon in political spirit, and he is another one at Colours with a British and jazz connection. Seun Kuti is from Nigeria, formerly a British colony, and during its Biafran War (1967-1970), his father, Fela Kuti, who was a musician in Lagos, became a cause celebre for his popular dance songs that included a fierce criticism of Nigeria’s military dictators and henchmen, who then reacted brutally against Fela for two decades.
Fela Anikulapo Kuti (born 1938 in British Nigeria) began his musical life in London, studying music at Trinity College 1956-1962, and during this time he started playing highlife in clubs for African students, then later in jazz clubs in London, calling the group Koola Lobitos. The music shifted to highlife jazz for their earliest concerts in Nigeria, before he came to name it “Afro-beat” in 1967.
So Fela is called “the godfather of Afro-beat” with its pan-Africanism message, that merged high life and traditional West African roots music under the influence of James Brown funk and soul jazz coated with a bevy of African queens (young female back-up vocalists and dancers who were his wives) and of his total of 27 “queens” most were on stage for concerts and tours, wrapped and smoked in a spiraling dance groove for anti-political anthems of 10-20 minutes for fullest hypnotic effects to work.
Seun Kuti (born 1983 in Lagos, Nigeria) was only a teen when his father died of AIDS (in 1997). His mother, Fehintola, one of Fela’s singers died of AIDS in 2007. Seun’s debut came soon after as “Seun Kuti and Fela’s Egypt 80,”(2008) as he took up the cause with Fela’s last legendary group, Egypt 80.
Like his father, Seun leads as a saxophonist, but as importantly as a defiant spokesman for causes such as political corruption, abuse of power and influence of multinational corporations over African natural resources, and overall injustices against the common people of Nigeria, and across Africa. Seun revives the fight against Nigerian politicians as much as the former colonial powers of the West. “From Africa With Fury: Rise” (2011) by Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 is tougher than their debut, while their newest EP, “African Dreams” (2022) is a miraculous return to form of Egypt ’80 under the leadership of Seun Kuti, and with a slower, funkier Afro-beat to the title track with punchy pidgin lyrics, “Too many of me youths, lost to television. Chasing the American Dream, tell me who dey Dream? Dream for Africa!”
Fela had an epiphany in his musical direction while in Los Angeles with his group Afrika 70, which is also noted for the collaborative efforts of its original drummer Tony Allen; they did breakthrough recordings in 1969, in Los Angeles as an African-jazz session, forged in soul and funk influences, but with a new message of Pan-Africanism charged by the politics of the Black Panther Movement and the voice/writings of Malcom X. So this is the powder-keg in music that Seun has reignited. While Seun’s oldest brother and Fela’s oldest son, Femi Kuti, also leads a group in honor of their father, Seun seems to have a truer uncompromising indignation as Fela’s in his vocal delivery, and carried by the magical music carpet ride of Egypt 80, the former band of both his late father and his mother, he truly delivers.
Other notable acts beyond jazz or jazz influenced groups include Gilberto Gil, another powerhouse in music and politics, meaning an artist who has much more to say than “Glad to see you and I love you.”
The Colours of Ostrava International Music Festival, in the northeastern region of Moravia, nearby Poland, is back to normal after two-years of cancellations (2020 and 2021). It includes an engaging cultural series of lectures, readings and debates on social issues, film screenings, art exhibits, and outdoor and in-door stages for variable weather. Come rain or shine it is a full-proof musical event.
More information on these and other artists appearing at the festival can be found at the festivals website.
Last modified: March 21, 2023