When we announced late last summer that London’s Sons of Kemet would join us in Knoxville for the first time at Big Ears 2019, the radical and ebullient jazz quartet were in the midst of an accolade blitz. Their third album and first for the relaunched powerhouse of Impulse!, Your Queen Is a Reptile, seemed to coincide with multiple different moments. First, it was part of an international awakening for the high-caliber and inventive jazz crawling out of many of the world’s biggest cities, from the likes of Makaya McCraven in Chicago to Yussef Kamaal in London. With its colossal, endlessly bouncing rhythms and the serpentine melodies and wonderfully raspy tone of saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, it felt like an emphatic proclamation.
But consider the title—Sons dared to be political, lambasting international oligarchs and monarchs not only with indelible slogans but also with irrepressible playing. They did this while also lifting up the banners of empowering black matriarchs, delivering songs of praise undergirded with rightful rage. Like Fela Kuti or Public Enemy, they battled back against sociopolitical blues with utter joie de vivre, as if staring down the world and saying “Come and get me, sucker.” The power and panache made them favorites to win the Mercury Prize, prompted praise from The New York Times, and a live review in The Guardian that exclaimed “a dub-punk-Latin-jazz confection that remakes the Sex Pistols’ point 40 years on, even more eloquently, through the sax and tuba: ‘she ain’t no human being.’”
So, how do you top a year like that? For Sons of Kemet, the answer seems to be to redirect your attention. Though they’ve got a slate of major 2019 bookings, including Big Ears 2019, Hutchings and Kemet’s hypnotic and heavy tuba player, Theon Cross, have excellent albums of their own due in the next six weeks.
Hutchings returns under the Impulse! banner with the new album from The Comet is Coming, a kinetic trio that pairs a spiritually searching jazz with a pharmacologically restless electronic backbone. On Trust In the Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery, due March 15, they don’t simply alternate between blistering tracks meant to propel bodies, like “Birth of Creation,” and astral explorations, like the distance and beckoning “Unity.” No, instead, they pull these strains together, so that mind, body, and spirit move in one synchronous motion, directing energy. It’s an album about seeking but celebrating, a redeeming counterbalance to Sons of Kemet’s righteous wallop.
On Fyah, his debut LP, Cross takes that wallop directly to the floor. Album opener “Activate” is a party of stuttering thunder, Cross’ tuba keeping the rumbling pulse between Moses Boyd’s unstoppable drums and Nubya Garcia’s inquisitive saxophone. “Candace of Meroe” is a block party, a communal West African shuttle split in different directions by a psychedelic guitar and Cross’ conversational tuba. They lean back toward indulgently smooth jazz for “Ciya” and then swing into freedom on “LDN’s Burning,” the city melting just like the melody and rhythm. Due February 15 on Gearbox Records, it is an unapologetic joy.
Sons of Kemet aren’t trying to repeat 2018 at all—they’re trying to explore the impulses that helped get them there in the first place.
Sons of Kemet (with Theon Cross) and The Comet is Coming play Big Ears 2019, March 21–24, in Knoxville, Tenn. Tickets are available now.