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Renowned Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings Embarks on a New Musical Odyssey: Flutes

by Madonna

In a recent concert paying homage to the legendary Pharoah Sanders, Shabaka Hutchings, the masterful saxophonist, once again unleashed his distinctive style, channeling voluminous breaths through his tenor saxophone to craft a formidable torrent of sound.

Long revered as a pivotal figure in the burgeoning British jazz scene, Hutchings has been integral to the genre’s recent surge in popularity, marked by its dissolution of traditional boundaries and embrace of dance music sensibilities. His tenor saxophone has served as the linchpin in a diverse array of projects, connecting the electronic experimentation of the Comet Is Coming to the vibrant intensity of Sons of Kemet, and more recently, to the legacy of fellow formidable saxophonists like Sanders.

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However, during our recent meeting, Hutchings, aged 39, revealed a significant shift in his musical trajectory. While not entirely forsaking the saxophone, the recent London performances, including the Sanders tribute, an extended rendition of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” and a collaboration with pianist Alexander Hawkins’s trio, marked the conclusion of an era dominated by the saxophone. As Hutchings assumes the role of artist in residence at New York’s Winter Jazzfest this week, the spotlight will largely be on his newfound proficiency with flutes, an instrument group he first embraced in 2019.

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“The bands that I was working with became successful enough to overshadow all other aspects of my work,” Hutchings explained, reflecting on his transition. Dismissing the notion of being exclusively a saxophone player, he viewed this bold change as an opportunity to excel in other realms of musical expression.

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Pianist Alexander Hawkins, a longstanding collaborator, commented, “I think of him as a sort of a multi-instrumentalist. Rather than being a switch, I think this is just a move towards other modes of expression.” Even Hutchings acknowledged the surprising nature of his decision, stating, “I literally would never have imagined putting down the saxophone back in 2020.”

In 2020, Hutchings could not have anticipated the rising prominence of the flute in jazz. However, a surprise release titled “New Blue Sun” by André 3000 in November, featuring the artist playing various flutes, thrust the instrument into the spotlight. Hutchings, who contributed to the album, remarked on their shared journey into flute playing, emphasizing the spontaneous and collaborative nature of their exploration.

Hutchings’s foray into the world of flutes gained momentum during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when a dwindling concert schedule allowed him to delve deeply into practice. Settled in Kingston, near Richmond Park in southwest London, he adopted a thoughtful and natural approach to practice. Similar to Sonny Rollins, who played his sax on the Williamsburg Bridge, Hutchings brought his instruments into deserted public spaces, sharing snippets of his practice on Instagram.

His primary instrument during these sessions wasn’t the outward-projecting saxophone but the inherently more inward flute. Hutchings brought a collection of handmade flutes, each representing various origins and traditions, to our interview. The flutes, mostly crafted from wood, were keyless, allowing for minute tunings akin to a trombone or violin.

Hutchings emphasized the symbiotic relationship between making and playing the flutes. Having already constructed one instrument himself, he plans to travel to Japan to harvest bamboo for his next creation. Reflecting on the challenges of playing the shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute, he noted its difficulty and the unique embouchure required for its melodic expression.

The artist, known for his disciplined approach, sees the shakuhachi as more than just a musical instrument. Katsuya Nonaka, a player and instrument maker assisting Hutchings, described it as a lifestyle—a means of connecting with nature.

Hutchings’s musical journey began with the clarinet at the age of 9. Raised in London, he moved to Barbados at 6, returned to England as a teenager, and studied clarinet at the Guildhall School of Music. Currently engaged in a book project offering life lessons for young musicians, Hutchings finds himself in a unique position as a professional turned beginner.

At the Winter Jazzfest, Hutchings will showcase his versatility, focusing on the flute in various performances. These include a duo with Joe Lovano, collaboration with Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s improvising string quartet, participation in a large group celebrating the East cultural center, and headlining an Impulse! Records showcase with support from Esperanza Spalding and harpists Brandee Younger and Charles Overton.

Unlike musicians inseparable from their instruments, Hutchings, likened to a Don Cherry figure, is an adventurer where “the person is the adventurer, not the instrument,” as remarked by pianist Alexander Hawkins.

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