“God save the Queen/ she ain’t no human being!” Johnny Rotten once sneered, but for British-Barbadian reedsman Shabaka Hutchings, he has the guile to go with the poesy in echoing the sentiment 40 years later. In Hutchings, the emergent British jazz scene has its firebrand and potential superstar and naming his breakout album Your Queen is a Reptile is as intrepid (and yes, punk as fuck) a title to give a jazz album in 2018, especially one that announces the reboot of the legendary Impulse! Records brand and will no doubt introduce Hutchings to mainstream jazz audiences stateside. Already, Hutchings nailed that rare hat trick in modern jazz, having three of his adventurous bands all brought into the House that Trane Built: the label signed his spiritually-minded octet Shabaka and the Ancestors, the jazz-acid of his electronic trio The Comet is Coming and the boombastic bop of quartet Sons of Kemet.
With a twin drum attack (rotating between Tom Skinner, Seb Rochford, Eddie Hick and another UK jazz breakout, Miles Boyd) and nimble tuba player Theon Cross, Kemet makes for a formidable rhythmic backdrop for Hutchings to move about in, perfect for appealing to a new generation of jazz fans less focused on standards and chord changes than letting the beat hit ‘em. Hutchings himself grew up learning to flow by practicing to Nas and Tupac verses; he can bridge Giant Steps and Biggie, Dizzy Gillespie and Dizzee Rascal. In addition to sounding like he’s in the jazz tradition, Hutchings also brings strains of grime, Carnival, and Jamaican deejaying into the mix.
That much is evident from the high-stepping soca stomp that powers opener “My Queen is Ada Eastman.” All praises due to a man who shades the royal family so as to big up his great-grandmother. Midway through, poet Joshua Idehen spits atop the bustling rhythm, rhyming phrases like “call me roach cuz I’m resilient” and “son of an immigrant,” a boast matched by Hutchings’s brusque and brazen lines. On the dubbed-out skronk of “My Queen Is Mamie Phipps Clarke,” the group features legendary British MC Congo Natty, whose voice rang out on hip-house, early jungle and ragga tracks and mixes well with the band’s strutting blend of righteous roots reggae, Afrobeat and modern British bass music.
The album’s biggest rush comes on the three-drummer thunder of “My Queen is Harriet Tubman,” which opens with Cross and Hutchings trading short staccato bursts before Hutchings starts to circle higher. As his solo takes flight and the polyrhythms grow frantic, his horn starts to shriek and bark, hearkening back to the guttural and percussive outbursts of early grime and Dizzee Rascal’s rough cadence on Boy in Da Corner. And when the drums go doubletime at the peak of “My Queen is Angela Davis,” it gives space for Cross and his elephant-in-toe-shoes tone to shine, his solo heavy and fleet at once.
Kinetic and thrilling as the uptempo blasts are, where Your Queen shines is on the slower pieces, revealing that Hutchings can purr, murmur and wax lyrical as well. With another up-and-coming British jazz star Nubya Garcia, the two twine around each other on “My Queen Is Yaa Asantewaa” (for queen mother of Ejisu in the Ashanti Empire if you’re not up on your black studies) each pushing the other to range further and deeper, every line a mix of fire and eloquence. The drums slow to a sacred, nyabinghi heartbeat on “My Queen Is Nanny Of The Maroons” and Cross’s tuba wades deep into dub bass territory as Hutchings offers up his most poignant solo, one that need not rise above a whisper to prove that this Jamaican national hero and Your Queen as a whole is worthy of national worship.