The comparison is right there, so I’m going to make it: Shabaka Hutchings, like Kamasi Washington, is a generational talent, a saxophonist, and a singular artist updating classic sounds of jazz to something new and totemic.
But where Washington crams everything from Archie Shepp to Fela Kuti into his epic-length statement albums, Hutchings instead separates his reworkings of the jazz canon into three different groups, basically alternating years since 2013 on which one gets his primary focus. In 2018, Hutchings signed an overall deal with the venerated Impulse! label, which in that year released Your Queen is a Reptile, an album of sometimes free-form avant-jazz. 2019 was the year of the Comet Is Coming, and their superlative Trust In the Lifeforce Of the Deep Mystery, an album that plays like Sun Ra playing with Funkadelic during that weird party before the war in the Matrix movies. 2020, then, is time for the octet Shabaka and the Ancestors, the group that broke Hutchings to a wider audience in 2016 — and U.K. jazz in general, for that matter — with their album Wisdom of the Elders. Their new album, We Are Sent Here By History, is an expansion and refinement of their 2016 breakthrough; it’s a mix of spiritual jazz a la Eddie Gale, afrobeat, Last Poets-esque afro-futurism poetry, and battle cries against toxic masculinity. It should almost go without saying that it’s this year’s jazz album to beat.
Centered around a narrative performed and written by Siyabonga Mthembu, We Are Sent Here by History examines the long arc of the destruction caused by white supremacy, and how it seems like humanity’s extinction is a coming fact. Drawing on Caribbean and African storytelling traditions, Mthembu is the album’s master of ceremonies, whooping, speaking truth to power, and demanding attention to his sung sermons throughout the album’s 11 tracks. Opening with the epic “They Who Must Die” the album conjures generations past, and crashes like a tsunami. The album closer, “Teach Me How to Be Vulnerable,” is a slow, sad ballad played with a Hutchings lead that takes the title, literally; it sounds like he’s playing it while also actively grieving. In between the Ancestors freak out (“Beasts Too Spoke Of Suffering”), go bop (“Behold the Deceiver”), and gather around a campfire (“Finally, The Man Cried”). There are few albums this year in any genre that cover this much ground in this compact of a run time.
With its narrative construction and deeper themes, We Are Sent Here By History is more than just another amazing album from Hutchings’ camp; it’s a reminder that jazz started as music played by African-Americans outside of the confines of white audiences and expectations, and that it still has tremendous power to be political, insistent, and vital. We Are Sent Here By History is all of those things, and more.