Sons of Kemet – review

Vortex, London
The band of sax/clarinet, tuba and two drummers balance originality and communality with a rare panache

There's a glass bottle marked "earplugs – 50p" on a shelf behind the bar at the Vortex Jazz Club. But though half of the quartet Sons of Kemet are drummers, and the shoebox-size club had cleared away its tables for a dancefloor, the music displayed at least as much refined lyricism as it did rip-roaring energy, and the glass bottle stayed firmly shut. The band were launching their debut album, Burn, after a two-year road life during which they've shown a growing young audience that a lineup of sax/clarinet, tuba and two drummers can be as visceral as a rock group, as serenely sensual as a ska band, as rootsy as a percussion choir and as instrumentally hip as a post-bop outfit.

Reeds-player Shabaka Hutchings, the band's Barbados-raised leader, is fascinated by early Caribbean and Rastafarian music and its links to west Africa and America, and these dominated this Vortex show. The thrilling ensemble sound of drummers Sebastian Rochford and Tom Skinner was the heartbeat, and the unique tuba player Oren Marshall furnished variously a bassist's low punch and harmonic shape, a Peter Brötzmann-like free-jazz roar and atmospheric sound effects like changing weather.

They silenced the cordial audience from the first notes, with Hutchings' quiet clarinet melody unfolding over drumming that was as soft as muffled hoofbeats – and the drummers kept up that languid clopping even as Marshall's tuba shook itself into life. Switching to tenor sax, Hutchings began blowing arrhythmic single-note patterns over the drumming on the global-warming theme All Will Surely Burn. The Godfather (a tribute to Ethiopian percussionist Mulatu Atsatkue) featured Hutchings' clarinet at its warmest and most classical, and eventually the drummers at their most unobtrusively chattery. Inner Babylon began as a raucous free-jazz sax blast, turned to brass band-like mellow repose, and then into a meditation in which Hutchings' jazz sophistication was evident in the faintest of elisions and phrase-turns.

Sons of Kemet balance originality and communality with a rare panache.

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John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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