Shabaka Perceive Its Beauty, Acknowledge Its Grace Review: Jazz colossus breathes new life into the New Age

British jazz lynchpin puts down the sax on questing new album

Shabaka Hutchings

by John Mulvey |
Updated on


Perceive Its Beauty, Acknowledge Its Grace



THE LEADING British saxophonist of his generation retired, after a fashion, on December 7, 2023. That night Shabaka Hutchings, on the cusp of 40, played what he promised would be his last gig on the instrument, performing John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme at London’s ICA. Hutchings’ valedictory run had lasted nearly 12 months, ever since he announced on New Year’s Day he’d be abandoning the saxophone. There would be farewell shows for his Sons Of Kemet band and, on September 23 in Hollywood, an evening when Hutchings took on another auspicious repertoire – that of Pharoah Sanders – to re-imagine Promises alongside Floating Points.

Hutchings’ decision to put down what he calls “the big metal horn”, and pick up a selection of wooden and bamboo flutes – the Japanese shakuhachi, the Andean quena, the Slavic svirel, the Brazilian pífano – looks like a pretty esoteric one. After all, Hutchings has spent the past decade at the forefront of a British jazz explosion, an activist with a dynamic style that made his music accessible to a crowd much broader than the usual jazz cabal.

Hutchings, though, has always been simultaneously an uncompromising free spirit and a canny populariser. And so it is that Perceive Its Beauty, Acknowledge Its Grace, his first solo album proper, turns out to be as serendipitous a career swerve as it is a strange one_. Perceive Its Beauty…_ is a delicate, inward-facing set, mostly recorded in 2022 at the historic Van Gelder Studios in New Jersey, where the most prominent sounds are all those flutes, a couple of duelling harps, and a selection of vocalists adding ululatory shade. If it initially seems niche, it’s also very much of the moment, tapping into a scene where jazz meets a revitalised New Age aesthetic. Promises, the Floating Points and Pharoah Sanders album that was MOJO’s Album Of The Year in 2021, is one loose reference point. André 3000’s New Blue Sun, the 2023 record that kicked off what we could now optimistically call an ambient jazz flute boom, is another.

André 3000 and Sam ‘Floating Points’ Shepherd both figure on I’ll Do Whatever You Want, an elegantly multi-faceted piece that sits in the middle of Perceive Its Beauty…. Shepherd provides a gently undulating soundbed of analogue synth, over which Hutchings – on shakuhachi, possibly one he made himself in Japan – goes head to head with the former Outkast frontman, here playing something which the credits helpfully identify as a Teotihuacan drone flute. After around four minutes, a subtly needling guitar line from Dave Okumu enters the mix, densening and intensifying. A minute later, a couple more notable guests arrive in the shape of Esperanza Spalding on bass, and the New Age pioneer Laraaji, on characteristically ecstatic yodels and giggles. On paper, it appears cluttered, ostentatious, an attempt to pack as many hip names as possible into seven and a half minutes. In practice, it works beautifully; a harmonious, intuitive jam far lighter than the sum of its parts.

Such is the way of Perceive Its Beauty, Acknowledge Its Grace, a collaboration that feeds off the energies of the musicians while avoiding the powerplays that sometimes come with improvised music. There are older jazz precedents than Floating Points and André 3000, of course – the questing spirit and global eclecticism of Don Cherry circa Brown Rice (1975) being an obvious one. The filigreed mix of Brandee Younger and Charles Overton’s harps and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s strings on As The Planets And The Stars Collapse, meanwhile, are strongly reminiscent of Alice Coltrane’s 1972 orchestral pivot, World Galaxy.

Hutchings, though, refers to Björk’s Vespertine, Antony And The Johnsons’ The Crying Light and, especially, Joanna Newsom as critical inspirations. You can hear how Newsom’s Ys is one of his favourite albums on Living, a rococo trinket with faint Renaissance Faire vibes where soul singer Eska assumes the trilling Newsom role over the harps, strings and – again, we’re indebted to the sleevenotes here – Hutchings’ whimsically parping svirei.

Music as determinedly pretty as this might be quite a shock if you’ve previously loved the ferocity of Hutchings’ music. “The way I was playing the saxophone in the past inspired that kind of intensity,” he tells MOJO, “because I was just blowing more air down the instrument and hyping myself up. Which is cool. There’s a need for that, but I feel like there’s a need for all expressions of the emotional landscape.”

Hence Perceive Its Beauty… takes its cues from the title of the 2022 EP that presaged Hutchings’ shift, Black Meditation. If his saxophone playing was often confrontational, staccato, his flute-playing is more introspective and fluid, a musical practice not dissimilar to a mindfulness of breathing exercise. “Holy wood burning, breathing deeper,” incants the New York rapper Elucid on the superb Body To Inhabit, revisiting one of his verses from the album he made last year as half of Armand Hammer, We Buy Diabetic Test Strips. Another rapper, Saul Williams, makes the concept even more explicit on a track called Managing My Breath, What Fear Had Become. “What it would actually mean to speak inwardly instead of outwardly,” Williams’ poem articulates, “To manage my breath.”

This, then, appears to be Hutchings’ mission on Perceive Its Beauty...: to transcend what he has become renowned for, and to strive for a greater physical and spiritual self-knowledge – albeit one which depends on creative teamwork rather than solipsism, and which never excludes the listener. It’s a personal musical narrative that starts with Hutchings playing the clarinet – his first instrument – and ends with the stirring poetry of his father, Anum Iyapo. And it’s one unafraid of past lives: three minutes and 22 seconds into Breathing, Hutchings temporarily drops his flutes and clarinet, and returns to his saxophone for one last exhalation of fire. The tools change, the air moves in different ways, the vision evolves; and one of our finest musicians might just have achieved a higher state of artistic consciousness.

Perceive Its Beauty, Acknowledge Its Grace is out now on Impulse!.

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