You can tell a lot about artists by the company they keep. Shabaka Hutchings, for example, has formed musical relationships with a whirlwind bunch of players, selectors and labels. First signed to DJ Gilles Peterson’s Brownwood Recordings in 2016 and now on the Impulse! roster, Hutchings was born into a musical life. His father, Anum Iyapo, designed album covers for reggae artists including Roots Radics, Alton Ellis and Sister Love. 

A classically trained clarinetist, Hutching later discovered the saxophone and became a founding member of incendiary UK jazz groups Shabaka and the Ancestors, Sons of Kemet and The Comet is Coming. His web stretches to include the late spiritual jazz icon Pharoah Sanders – who handpicked Hutchings to blow his tenor parts during Floating Points’ 2023 performance of their collaborative album “Promises” at the Hollywood Bowl – and André 3000, who included a flute duet with Hutchings on his critically acclaimed “New Blue Sun”.

All these collaborations eclipse the truth that his new work “Perceive Its Beauty, Acknowledge Its Grace” is his first actual solo album after the EP “Afrikan Culture” from 2022. Setting aside both saxophone and clarinet to focus on the shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute, Hutchings directs his lung capacity, his breath, his energy and his muse through it to create a work that manages to convey nuance, depth, patience – and that ineffable something that separates the so-so from the great.

Below, five great Shabaka moments.

Shabaka and the Ancestors – “Mzwandile”

Old school heads first heard Hutchings, who was born in London in 1984, on The Heliocentrics’ and Ethiopian legend Mulatu Astatke’s 2009 record on Strut, but Hutchings earned his first major attention when DJ and tastemaker Gilles Peterson signed Shabaka and the Ancestors to Brownwood. That project confirmed the player’s polyglot mash of influences, from his father’s Barbados roots (Hutchings spent some of his early years there) to the London mix of reggae, dub, toasting, calypso, soca, soul, jazz and funk. You can hear it on a song like “Mzwandile”. It tore the roof off Le Poisson Rouge when, in 2017, they performed at the Winter Jazz Festival in New York City.

The Comet is Coming – NPR Tiny Desk Concert

A fan of the duo Soccer96, Hutchings once sidled up to their side of the stage holding his sax. Invited onstage by keyboardist Dan Leavers and drummer Max Hallet, Hutchings triangulated with them and, like three laser beams converging in the cosmos, became a blinding bolt of musical energy. Since combining as The Comet is Coming and becoming King Shabaka, Danalogue and Betamax, the trio has issued three EPs and four albums. Not long after they released their Impulse! debut in 2019, “Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery“, the three gathered at NPR headquarters to record a Tiny Desk Concert. Watch and understand.

Sons of Kemet – “Pick Up Your Burning Cross”

Immediately identifiable among Hutchings’ projects by a robust, sonorous dollop of tuba, Sons of Kemet came into being after two drummers, Seb Rochford (Polar Bear) and Tom Skinner, joined two wind-and-brass players, Hutchings and Oren Marshall (later replaced by Theon Cross). Two bangers and two blowers: not the usual quartet, but one whose potency is fueled by four vessels converging as one, especially when they team with guest vocalists and MCs. To emphasize this energy, Impulse! and the group issued a live take on “Pick Up Your Burning Cross.” Taken from their final album, 2021’s “Black To The Future“, it features guest appearances by Moor Mother and Angel Bat Dawid.

London Brew

Few albums better capture the explosive nature of the UK jazz scene as “London Brew”, a 2023 collaborative album featuring 16 players who convened for a series of sessions while focusing on the vibe and spirit that Miles Davis created on his landmark fusion album “Bitches Brew”. Originally envisioned as a series of concerts to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1970 recordings, London Brew came to be when producer Martin Terefe was forced to reimagine the project after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down these plans. Instead, in late 2020, a roster of players got together at the Church Studios in North London and spent five days jamming and brainstorming. In addition to being a brilliant collage of those sessions, “London Brew” finds two London would-be titans, Nubya Garcia and Hutchings (along with members of Sons of Kemet, The Comet is Coming, the Ancestors and more) swapping solos.

Shabaka with Floating Points and Laraaji – “I’ll Do Whatever You Want” 

In the past few years, Hutchings has not just shifted gears, but swapped vehicles. Setting down the saxophone to focus on the shakuhachi, a Japanese end-blown bamboo flute, he’s embarked on a quest to master it. The move came as a surprise to fans who’d come to identify and love his tone as he blows through brass. Hutchings, though, was first drawn to the clarinet as a kid and was trained on it at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

“People say, because you’re doing lots of work on the saxophone, you are a saxophone player. I’m not really a saxophone player,” he told The New York Times earlier this year. In a story for The Guardian, Hutchings explained that the shakuhachi has a steep learning curve, noting that the 16th century instrument “takes six months to a year to get a sound out of, and then seven to eight years to develop enough technique to play the repertoire.” If his work with electronic music producer Floating Points, new age zither master Laraaji, and André 3000 on drone flute on “I’ll Do Whatever You Want” is any indication, Hutchings is apparently a shakuhachi prodigy, too. 

Discover more in the Everything Jazz Shabaka Hutchings Collection:

Randall Roberts is an award-winning music and culture journalist, and a former music editor at the Los Angeles Times.

Header image: Shabaka Hutchings. Photo: Atiba Jefferson / Impulse! Records.