Soweto Kinch is well known as a musician who works at the crossroads of jazz and hip hop but his latest release, The Legend of Mike Smith, goes even further.
It’s a sprawling double album full of ambitious narratives and musical styles which ricochet effortlessly amid genres all underpinned by a sharp sense of rhythm and rhyme. While the funk is heavy, the content is equally weighty with an exploration of the seven deadly sins taking place over the 40 songs.
With such lofty ambitions, it’s not surprising how Soweto is a revered and respected as an artist among the jazz community. His music, which is fuelled as much by a love of soundsystem culture as much John Coltrane, has seen him awarded a pair of MOBO awards, a Mercury Music Prize nomination and two Urban Music Awards. He’s also behind The Flyover Show a one-day festival in Birmingham which takes local artists and puts them on a bill alongside renowned global names like Goldie, Omar and Akala.
M managed to track down the extremely busy Soweto and quiz him about the songwriting process, jazz and why musicians working in the genre need to remember to play with integrity and passion rather than just playing it cool…
How did you first get into jazz?
My father is a playwright and my mother is an actress so there were always creative types like musicians, actors and poets around the house. I grew up in that sort of artistic environment.
When I was 13 I went to a play in Edinburgh featuring these two jazz musicians Will Gaines and Frank Holder. There was something about being that age and seeing a musician really enjoy the music and dance to it which was very compelling. I went to a concert in Birmingham the same year and that was quite an epiphany. This is jazz, I want to be a part of it and wear cool suits!
Did you receive formal training?
To master any language you want to train. You want to absorb yourself in this new vocabulary and the language it requires.
I didn’t go to jazz school but instead exposed myself to different sources. I listened to a lot of music, read books and met kindred musicians with similar tastes. There was no single method. Another thing which really helped was just going along to great jazz gigs and pestering the saxophone players and asking questions about their techniques.
The Legend of Mike Smith is your latest album - how has your songwriting developed?
It’s hard to say as you always hope your style is in constant evolution. But musically, particularly with this current project, it’s a lot more grandiose in the narrative and the telling of the story. The stylistics colours I use are not so much straight ahead jazz or hip hop. There are a lot more free elements while avant garde and classical music sounds feature quite heavily.
As an approach I’ve taken what happened with [second album] A Life In The Day Of B19 - Tales Of The Tower Block and got even more involved in the theatrical elements - the character development and plot.
Do you have a musical ‘map’ when you go into the studio to record?
I have stuff written down and a sense of the shape of the entire album. It’s like a quilt, a patchwork of different moments which make up the whole story behind the record. So I go in with a theme, melody and the chords and a couple of days rehearsal with the band. That way we’re still fresh when it comes to recording.
You’re known for fusing hip hop and jazz. Was that always a natural way to go for you musically?
Fusing jazz and hip-hop was a natural way of making music for me. These are the sounds which really switched me on to creativity as a teenager. I copied all the John Coltrane records from the library onto cassette. The Pharcyde, De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest used to sample jazz records - their hip-hop music has resonances of jazz in it.
Those genres are not exclusive. It just makes sense as I love to play the saxophone in the instinctive tradition of British jazz and I MC and rap. That puts those two genres very much forward in my mix but I really think about the full gamut of music and my composite influences are much wider than that.
I grew up in areas, in Handsworth in Birmingham and Ladbroke Grove in London, where reggae and soundsystem culture was seminal. That side of music is very important to me. The improvised and classical areas are important to me too.
Did this fusion confuse audiences and traditional jazz fans?
No it didn’t. Which was a surprise. Audiences think these two sides of music sit well together. But critics and retailers did have had a harder time trying to categorise the music. The likes of HMV and Tower Records have a pecking order of genres when it comes to sales. And you’ll always exist as an esoteric specialist if you are a jazz musician.
Is there a good infrastructure for new jazz musicians to come through?
Not really. There’s a good infrastructure to allow them to become better musicians, make them network and make the connections they’ll need later on.
But there’s an increasingly sophisticated machine that keeps young musicians ignorant. How do I become autonomous? How do I put out my own releases? There are a lot of people who trade on the specialist knowledge that new artists don’t have. It’s information which is not easy to find on the internet.
What are the main challenges facing the jazz genre?
Yes it’s an interesting time, certainly in terms of packaging and marketing. The likes of Roller Trio or Portico Quartet have interesting ways of getting new audiences to consider the music first before realising it’s jazz. That’s very healthy.
But there is also a pressure to make it ‘cool’. You need to seed it with something else. You can’t just play the music.
One of the best things to come from touring is seeing how young people respond to the music. Particularly to instrumental passages, which you’d think are only relevant for older audiences.
We’re at a point where musicians should play the music as they see fit and not worry about embellishing their own sound with something hip and trendy. People respond to integrity and passion to the way you play music rather than style or what box it ticks.