The Legend of Mike Smith
Soweto Kinch Productions **** NEW SEASON HIGHLIGHT RECOMMENDED
When Conversations with the Unseen came out in 2003, everyone on the British jazz scene just had to stand back and take note. After all a young player, a complete unknown then, had somehow come up with something that immediately ranked him as a significant player who in time I suppose will be thought of as one of the greatest alto saxophone players this country has ever produced. And his skills were picked up internationally as well, with Kinch collecting international plaudits at the Montreux Jazz Festival winning a hotly contested saxophone award, while going on to develop his dual saxophone/rapping concept to move him into a new space, in the process gaining the high profile backing of Wynton Marsalis. Contrast Kinch’s musical journey with another Wynton protégé of the time, the blisteringly impressive Italian Francesco Cafiso, a more conventional if equally celebrated saxophonist, who has taken a different more orthodox path. When Kinch won the Peter Whittingham award back in the UK he used the money to fund the much sought-after single ‘Jazz Planet’, a catchy rap about an imagined topsy turvy world where jazz is the commercial music, and rock is the art music that no one really listens to. It’s amusing but makes its point felt. Kinch was underlining his ability as a lyrics man and a freestyler, at concerts often asking audience members to lob words (often very difficult rarely heard fiendishly polysyllabic ones) to build an impromptu rap.
Concept album A Life In The Day of B19: Tales of the Tower Block, his Birmingham album, was not so much of a success despite some good ideas, and was a bit of a curate’s egg, good in parts, but changing label and settling down into a better groove as his artistic direction changed The New Emancipation released in 2010 saw Kinch assert himself fully again and was met with positive reviews.
The Legend of Mike Smith is once more a concept release, this time a double album built around the idea of the seven deadly sins with many short tracks spread over the two CDs, lots of humour, and role playing featuring characters that include Soweto speaking as his inner voice, his brother Toyin Omari-Kinch as album hero Smith, and skits plus full blown instrumental burn outs. Mike Smith is a hopeful MC looking for a deal but he has everyman qualities and faces everyman temptations, trials and tribulations.
The core band is Kinch with Karl Rasheed-Abel on bass and Graham Godfrey drums with Kinch inviting in many guests to either speak, act, sing, or play. Tessa Walker is perfect as the blasé record company A&R Kate Advo for instance and the best musical cameos include one from Jay Phelps on the ballad ‘Vacuum’ set against an elegiac piano line from Julian Joseph, with Kinch playing a kind of tough guy romantic on alto sax. Kinch also plays quite a bit of tenor sax on the album, an instrument he’s less associated with. Cleveland Watkiss appears on ‘Avaritia’, with its baroque liturgical undertow, in one sense a scaldingly anti-capitalist protest song critical of the excesses of a violent society obsessed obscenely with profit. It’s also a post English-riots London fable, the city as Mammon, but also the place where as urban people we live, an engine of greed. That song leads on to the Sons of Kemet-influenced ‘Slam’ with Shabaka Hutchings duelling against Soweto as the two master reedsmen go head to head. It’s wonderful stuff the pair riffing against neat harmonies with Godrey coming into his own hard at the kit. There’s lots more on this superb double album, funny little songs such as the fast food restaurant parody ‘Gula’ and its companion ‘Escape the Vomatorium’ and a certain historic time shuffling stepping back centuries before The Pharcyde via beats, baroque classical music programming, and a Milton-esque narrative sense. And what’s that rattling Mr Benn-type marimba-sounding moment on ‘Gula’, old TV music, lost in the ‘vomatorium’, possibly, as well? Finally, listen out for Eska Mtungwazi on the well crafted song-of-the-spurned, ‘Better off Alone’, on the second disc. There’s no getting away from it: The Legend of Mike Smith is a triumph.
Released on 18 February. Soweto Kinch and friends top, with the cover of The Legend… above