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Conversations With The Unseen by Soweto Kinch

The freshness coming out of this debut CD is beyond words - the prime of a man of 24, Soweto Kinch, an astounding alto saxophone player with amazing talent and capacity of expression. A very outspoken album, all the 12 tracks being written and arranged by him - a solid signature from a musician already recipient of Awards such as the White Foundation International Saxophone Competition at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and the BBC Radio Jazz Award for Rising Star 2002.

‘Conversations With The Unseen’ rests upon two main roots: jazz and the spoken-word (as the title suggests,) with the latter never too heavily overpowering the former. Jazz in fact remains stylistically predominant throughout the album, even when the tracks get more involved with hip-hop. Therefore, Kinch is a jazz artist meeting rap and not vice versa; and as such, not an album wanting to get into the ‘hip-hop’ domain, but simply an approach to jazz as a genre that ‘eats everything in its path,’ (as Quincy Jones would say.) And it is feasible to say that Soweto’s choice of hip-hop is probably derived from his age, aside from a stylistically informed approach to crossovering.

The quartet is not classically shaped, with the guitar (in place of the piano) definitely playing more than a simple side-role.Guitarist Femi Temowo seems able to reshape (both harmonically and timbrically) the symmetry of the pieces, at times even from an ancillary position.

Structurally, the ‘Intro’ and ‘Outro’ tracks aim to re-create the atmosphere of a ‘club,’ with Soweto rapping on a swing/funk base, producing at times a clash between the heavily rhythmical pulse of the voice and the relatively more unrestrained line of bass and drums. ‘Intermission - Split Decision’ (another of the ‘spoken-word’ tunes, 4 in total including ‘Good Nyooz’,) aesthetically unveils the role played by hip-hop, with Soweto rapping through a ‘little anecdote’ as he says, a tale about two women and their influence in his life - the women an allegory of jazz and hip-hop. The spoken-word therefore acts in Soweto’s vision as a semantic reinforcement to music, a powerful tool in the hands of this Oxford graduated saxophone player who is no stranger to the importance of words to define meanings and convey ideologies.

Most of the tunes are straight jazz playing, though. Among the twelve tracks, ‘Equiano’s Tears’ powerfully emerges as a piece dedicated to the memory of Olaudah Equiano (whose autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, is paradigmatic of the ‘slave narrative’ as a literary genre in the 18th Century.) If it is superfluous to highlight that jazz is stylistically empowered by its intrinsic ideological meanings, then it will not come as a surprise that this is probably the most interesting track of the lot. The sax line is harmonically chromatic, extremely agile, tonally enriching the writing at different levels, with the guitar following on a similar enticing pattern. The ensemble’s cohesion is amazing, with a powerfully flexible and engaging drumming throughout.

‘Snakehips’ is also a ‘tribute-track,’ this time to Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson (Britain's first black swing bandleader, from a generation of Caribbean immigrants who contributed to shape the swinging era in the UK.) The piece rhythmically suggests Latin excursions, though within a mild, delicate swinging frame, that at times opens up to solid sax solos.As for Soweto’s bopping skills, they are thoroughly displayed (as in ‘Doxology,’ ‘Elision’ or ‘Spokes And Pedals.’)

Strangely enough, the title-track (‘Conversations With The Unseen’) is deprived of verbal connotations, and it is in fact softly built, with a gentle swinging line of bass and drums.

At a general level of the interpretation, the sax line perhaps needs to develop a strongest signature. There is not always a 100% solid, tight bopping, where the stamina never fails, without empty moments between the lines - as one could find in Brecker, Grossman, Pine (the latter named by Soweto as one of his mentors,) or as far back as Coleman, Coltrane, Shorter, Parker. As for the sound, the sax perhaps needs to settle down a little, to smooth the edges, especially on the clean, purer phrases. But these are actually insignificant matters, if compared to Soweto’s overwhelming talent.

The impression is that the artist behind the sax has to mature, given his young age and having already produced this amazing debut album - and that is only a gift of time and experience. But with such a remarkable start, time will prove Soweto right.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Soweto Kinch
  • CD Title: Conversations With The Unseen
  • Genre: Contemporary Jazz / Modern
  • Year Released: 2003
  • Record Label: Dune Records
  • Tracks: Intro; Doxology; Conversations With The Unseen; Elision; Spokes And Pedals; Intermission - Split Decision; Snakehips; Mungo’s Adventure; The Flame-Thrower; Equiano’s Tears; Good Nyooz; Outro.
  • Musicians: Soweto Kinch (alto sax/rap vocals,) Femi Temowo (guitar,) Michael Olatuja (double bass,) Troy Miller (drums,) plus special guests Abram Wilson (trumpet/vocals,) and Eska Mtungwazi (vocals.)
  • Rating: Five Stars
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