thu 30/05/2024

Album: Shabaka - Perceive its Beauty, Acknowledge its Grace | reviews, news & interviews

Album: Shabaka - Perceive its Beauty, Acknowledge its Grace

Album: Shabaka - Perceive its Beauty, Acknowledge its Grace

A quiet and reflective breakthrough

Gal Beckerman’s 2023 book The Quiet Before makes a plea that if ideas, revolutionary or otherwise, are to grow, there needs to be a retreat from “our current cacophony”. And if there is one artist who is truly living out that principle in his musical life, it is Shabaka. As he said to the audience at this year’s Winter Jazzfest in NYC: “Change is never easy.”

What is clear, though, is how utterly serious and focused he is on the change. Perceive its Beauty, Acknowledge its Grace is almost entirely a meditative and quiet album. His live shows in the past few months have all been in front of seated audiences. He has moved on from the saxophone (an instrument born in the military in the reign of King Louis Philippe I of France) and now surrounds himself with a range of peaceful flutes.

In fact, his recent work might just – mercifully – neuter the endlessly repeated cliché that the British jazz “explosion” has been all about making music accessible by bringing it in to the clubbing environment. Face facts: many of the musicians involved in it – and Shabaka in particular – are just far too good and too adaptable for that.

The concept behind recording Perceive its Beauty... was to assemble a group of very different musicians at the iconic Van Gelder Studios in New Jersey, and to record in the room without separation. If one seeks a calming and meditative heart to the album it is probably “The Wounded Need to be Replenished”, where Shabaka plays a flute with a tiny range and a quiet sound (it has proved impossible thus far to crowbar any information on which instruments Shabaka is playing on which tracks from the label’s PR company), with the stellar South African pianist Nduduzo Makhathini and others setting a context in which his ethereal sounds can comment and decorate. “Body to Inhabit” is very different. It has a  rhythmic springiness and deliberate uncertainty about it, propelled by Esperanza Spalding on bass. Shabaka has talked in interviews of his “tendency to play inside of and around rhythm in very subtle ways” and that is very much a determining feature. There is also the personal here: the final track features his father Orville Hutchings, aka the dub poet Anum Iyapo.

There are other ironies here, too. The album is on the Impulse! label, part of Universal Music Group, with turnover of $12bn. Shabaka is being toured by the entertainment giants AEG (turnover nearly $8bn). Probably in an ideal world they would be expecting Shabaka to be developing his music in a way that builds on his previous success, rather than to retreat into meditation and reflection. The Japanese shakuhachi has been associated with the idea of self-realisation through suizen for centuries. 

The press materials describe Perceive its Beauty... as, in some senses, a debut album. And yet, who knows, the faith which vast behemoths like UMG and AEG have put into this quiet, thoughtful album means that it might just, finally, be the one which breaks through and brings to an end Shabaka’s many years of total neglect from the GRAMMYs.

The concept behind its recording was to assemble a group of very different musicians, and to record in the room without separation

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