The second Hello Skinny album, Watermelon Sun conjures images of the languorous, dreamy escapism its title suggests. Channelling influences including UK jazz, New Jersey house and Chicago footwork, it’s the melodies – played on trombone, tenor sax and the keys – which are the bright-shining, consistent thread throughout. The solo project of esteemed drummer Tom Skinner (whose other recent projects include Sons of Kemet and Owiny Sigoma Band), the album features influential trombone player and composer Peter Zummo (a friend and collaborator of Arthur Russell, who’s recently released new material on Glasgow’s Optimo label).
Over the past thirty years, dance music has splintered off into a myriad web of different styles and tribes. But in the beginning, things were different: starting with New York’s late ‘70s disco boom, the city’s fertile club scene co-mingled hip-hop, R&B, punk and the avant-garde. For Hello Skinny, that open-minded attitude serves as inspiration for Watermelon Sun. Recorded in free-form, improvised live sessions, it sees that broad-minded club lineage channelled through London’s genre-blurring, jazz-influenced vanguard.
Connecting via a mutual friend, Skinner went to see Zummo at his house on Staten Island, New York in 2014. A performer and composer of minimalism and contemporary classical since the late ‘60s, he also played on cultish disco singles like Arthur Russell’s “Kiss Me Again” and “Go Bang”. Strongly influenced by hearing Zummo explain his open-form approach to composition, Skinner approached the recording sessions with written material – a clutch of riffs, melodies and basslines – as the jumping off point for open-ended recordings. Rejecting the kind of improvisation where each player takes their turn to solo, he embraced a group-oriented approach. Or as he puts it, “I like improvising where it doesn't sound like improvising.”
Weaved through with loose, colourful melodies, the record deftly shifts tempos – from the off-kilter club banger of “Mr P.Z.” to the slow-build, yearning sounds of “iDEATH” – in a way that reflects Skinner’s experience behind the drum kit. He often plays unconventional rhythms, in 5/4 rather than the 4/4 norm, in a way that’s not showy or trying to be challenging. “I try and write things that feel natural,” he explains. “It might be in 5/4, but it doesn't immediately sound like it, so it can be quite rhythmically accessible in that way. I'm really interested in rhythm and how you can construct rhythms in different ways.”
As a drummer, he’s been a ubiquitous presence working with scene-leading saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings as well as the likes of Dave Okumu (The Invisible) and Eska. Part of a generation bridging time-earned musicianship with wide-open influences – from electronic music to hip-hop and pop – he’s part of killer live outfit Sons of Kemet and has toured with acts including Matthew Herbert, Kano and Mulatu Astatke.
Arriving at a moment when blurred genres and disparate styles are increasingly being embraced in UK venues and clubs, the moment is ripe for an album which embraces that open-minded attitude. Informed and shaped by the collaboration with Zummo, it bridges internet-mutated dance music with a continent-spanning jazz sensibility – reimagining that underground New York legacy for London in 2017.