The Saxophone Master Shabaka Hutchings Is on a Fresh Journey: Flutes

Saxophone Master

The British musician is an artist in residence at Winter Jazzfest in New York this week, playing an instrument group that he first picked up in 2019. As Shabaka Hutchings led a concert tribute to Pharoah Sanders in early December, he returned to a familiar equation: funneling gallons of air through his tenor saxophone, transforming it into a corrosive stream of sound.

Hutchings has been an essential figure on a British jazz scene that has experienced an uptick in popularity over the past decade because of its erasure of genre boundaries and its embrace of the art form’s foundational dance music sensibilities. His distinctive tenor has long been the through line of his diverse, widely acclaimed projects, connecting the electronic skronk of the Comet Is Coming to the fire of Sons of Kemet, and lately to the legacy of fellow hard-blowing saxophonists like Sanders.

But by the time we met earlier this month, Hutchings, 39, had put down the saxophone, if not for good then certainly for the foreseeable. A handful of gigs across London last month — the Sanders tribute, an extended take on John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and a final flourish as a guest with the pianist Alexander Hawkins’s trio — were the final chances to hear Hutchings performing on an instrument that has dominated his musical life for the first part of his professional career. When he appears at New York’s Winter Jazzfest as an artist in residence this week, for the most part he will be playing flutes, an instrument group that he first picked up in 2019.

“The bands that I was doing those gigs with became successful enough for them to dominate all the space of my work,” Hutchings said, speaking quietly and methodically, in a way that suggested recounting recent life events to others may be another extension of his artistic practice. “People say, because you’re doing lots of work on the saxophone, you are a saxophone player. I’m not really a saxophone player.” He felt that the only chance to be proficient elsewhere was to make a bold change.

“I think of him as a sort of a multi-instrumentalist,” said the pianist Alexander Hawkins, a longtime collaborator. “Rather than being a switch, I think this is just a move towards other modes of expression.” The decision, which Hutchings said “ultimately boils down to intuition,” still surprised even him, though. “I literally would never have imagined putting down the saxophone back in 2020,” he said.

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