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Voices of Bishara takes British jazz in an innovative new direction

Sons of Kemet’s Tom Skinner uses the past to look to the future

If jazz music is built on the shoulders of giants, then the best new players are using that vantage point in increasingly intelligent, groundbreaking ways. The UK, as I’ve written here before, is leading the charge; emerging artists are creating music that is deferential but not derivative, expanding on older ideas with limitless imagination as opposed to using them as a template. Voices of Bishara, a new album from former Sons of Kemet percussionist Tom Skinner, is a perfect example. The album was inspired by Skinner’s lockdown obsession with the cellist Abdul Wadud’s 1978 solo LP By Myself, a 36-minute plucked and bowed musical monologue, spiky, frazzled, urgent and intimate, like a vivid anecdote being recounted to a close friend.  

“There’s a purity to the record,” Skinner tells me. “It’s a very direct and deeply personal piece of work. When you’re listening to it it’s just you and him, no overdubs or studio trickery beyond the odd edit here and there. He’s talking directly to you, and I found that very refreshing and inspiring.”

The reclusion of the pandemic allowed the album to get further under his skin than it might have done under normal circumstances. “Looking back on it, I think maybe I took some solace in that kind of intimacy at a time when we weren’t able to interact with other people as much as we were accustomed to. The joyfulness and irreverence of that record is something that I hope has influenced my own music.” 

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Skinner, also known for his work with rock band The Smile alongside Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, and his two prior solo records released under the alias Hello Skinny, has expanded on the conversational aspects of Wadud’s album. Where By Myself is a story told by a single voice, Voices of Bishara is very much a collective discussion, featuring a band comprised of cellist Kareem Dayes, saxophonist and flautist Nubya Garcia, bassist Tom Herbert and Skinner’s Sons of Kemet bandmate Shabaka Hutchings on saxophone and bass clarinet. Like Wadud, the band never lingers on one idea or musical expression, moving swiftly between lawlessness and order and back again. 

The opener, Bishara is led by Dayes’ cello into a dark and dissonant place, while the bluesy beat-era influenced The Day After Tomorrow evokes images of damp New York sidewalks under yellow streetlights. The Journey, perhaps the most radio-friendly track, is heartfelt and joyful and Voices (Of
the Past)
glimmers with traces of late ’90s neo-soul. Each musical idea is distinct and intentional, unconstrained by expectations of what a jazz album should sound like, owing to Skinner’s varied taste and his work in other genres. 

“I try to be as open as possible and not restrict myself in terms of what I’m listening to, who I work with or how I want my music to sound,” he says of his influences. “Nowadays I feel there is less emphasis on ‘genre’ or ‘style’, it’s become very fluid which I think is a very interesting and healthy place to be.”  

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Even during its uninhibited, chaotic moments, Voices of Bishara remains tight and un-self-indulgent. Skinner has an excellent ear, not just for composition but for editing; each note is there for a reason, like exposition in a play. He has paid close attention to the masters in this regard.  

“The edit is as important to a jazz record as any other type of record,” he says. “Miles Davis’s 1969 album Bitches Brew is a prime example of that. It’s nothing new. For some tracks on my record I was editing things in a more extreme or pronounced kind of way though. I did this intentionally to create a sometimes jarring sense of space and perspective between the different instruments in the group. Musically speaking, this was crucial to allow the album to flow in the right way from start to finish.” 

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Although Skinner and his collaborators are perpetually busy with other projects, he indicates that Voices of Bishara marks the beginning of something much bigger. 

“I’ve started writing material for a second Bishara record. I’d like to record with the same instrumentation at least and explore the sound of the group further.” When I ask him what he hopes Voices of Bishara
will give to those who listen, Skinner is keen to pay forward the same gift he received from Abdul Wadud during lockdown. “A sense of hope, positivity and joy.” 

Deb Grant is a radio host and Big Issue jazz critic 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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