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Pictures Of Infinity: Stewart Smith on the Cosmic Jazz Connection

December 2015

“The spiritual vibes of cosmic jazz launched hiphop and club culture into new dimensions,” says Stewart Smith. Read Stewart's essay on the cosmic jazz connection of 2015, as featured in The Wire 383

The cover of Kamasi Washington’s The Epic pictures the dashiki-clad saxophonist sitting beatifically as planets come into alignment behind him. It invites you to think of him as a visionary, attuned to the harmony of the spheres, and as an heir to the cosmic jazz tradition, in particular the spiritual line that stems from John Coltrane. Within jazz and beyond, there’s a renewed interest in the tradition. In setting out for space, a number of artists have synthesised jazz and other forms to generate new hybrids. Meanwhile, cosmic jazz’s infiltration of hiphop and club culture has extended from sampling to collaborations with jazz musicians. But is this a relaunch of what Kodwo Eshun called the Afrodelic Space Program, or is it merely a superficial exercise in cosmic chic?

The cosmic manifests itself in jazz in three key ways: sonically, spiritually and programmatically. The style is often associated with electronic instruments and studio technology, but space can also be evoked acoustically through harmonic and/or textural means, from the impressionistic chords of a Sun Ra piano piece to the orchestral galaxies of Alice Coltrane. In the case of John and Alice Coltrane the journey to the stars is articulated in religious terms. The AstroBlack Mythology of Sun Ra lends cosmic jazz a more explicitly programmatic dimension.

Alice Coltrane “Journey In Satchindananda”

With artists like Washington, Rob Mazurek, Nicole Mitchell, Konstrukt and Shabaka Hutchings, jazz has re-engaged with the cosmic tradition, and renewed its dialogue with electronic music, hiphop, rock and noise. The soaring choir and strings of The Epic’s opener “Change Of The Guard” recall the original Star Trek theme, reimagined through the symphonic soul of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Washington’s own reference point is Stravinsky’s Symphony Of Psalms, but I’m also reminded of David Axelrod’s productions for Cannonball Adderley and the dense orchestrations of Alice Coltrane. Washington also contributed to Kendrick Lamar’s recent To Pimp A Butterfly, and his own music’s debt to hiphop comes through in its energy and attack. There’s an obvious spiritual dimension to Washington’s uplifting music, but his politics articulate a more worldly form of black consciousness than the Afrodelic visions of his predecessors.

Kamasi Washington “Change Of The Guard”

For Chicago based cornettist and composer Rob Mazurek, the cosmic is all encompassing. His compositions for The Exploding Star Orchestra are centred around an imaginary alchemist, writer, plant specialist and futurologist called Helder Velasquez Smith. As Mazurek explained to the Popmatters website, Exploding Star Orchestra’s 2015 triple LP set Galactic Parables Vol 1, “calls into question the past on Earth pertaining to future possibilities”, while the gorgeous trio set Alternate Moon Cycles is a one note mantra towards the understanding of what happens after we pass from this life to the next.

In the light of the Black Lives Matter movement, Afrofuturist jazz in the lineage of Sun Ra has taken on renewed urgency, its politics of imagining acting as a challenge to white supremacy. Flautist Nicole Mitchell, a member of Exploding Star Orchestra and band leader in her own right, extends this tradition. Her 2008 Xenogenesis Suite and its 2014 sequel Intergalactic Beings are based on novels by the Afrofuturist writer Octavia Butler in which alien abduction and human-alien interbreeding are used to discuss racism, rape and slavery.

Nicole Mitchel “The Ooli Moves”

But the reach of cosmic jazz now extends far beyond the US. Prolific Turkish free jazz outfit Konstrukt unite Sun Ra worship with the cracked philosophies of the contemporary psychedelic underground. In the UK, Orphy Robinson and Pat Thomas’s Black Top and Shabaka Hutchings’s Sons Of Kemet are fusing jazz with the traditions of the African-Caribbean diaspora. Black Top’s 2014 debut #One wove Steve Williamson’s saxophone around piano, percussion and electronics, and in a meeting of cosmic currents, Robinson recently joined US psychedelic drifter Sun Araw on stage at London’s Cafe Oto. Sons Of Kemet titles such as “The Long Night Of Octavia Butler” make their cosmic leanings clear, and this year’s Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do references Barbadian drum circles, jungle and UK funky, as they create a polyrhythmic base for Hutchings’s hot tenor and exploratory bass clarinet.

Sons Of Kemet “Play Mass”

The traffic between cosmic jazz, hiphop and electronic music goes both ways. From Afrika Bambaataa and Divine Styler to Shabazz Palaces and THEESatisfaction, hiphop has always had its extraterrestrial visionaries, but Madlib and Flying Lotus don’t just sample the records, they also work with the musicians. By featuring Washington and Thundercat alongside Herbie Hancock, FlyLo’s 2014 future-fusion opus You’re Dead! spanned multiple generations of cosmic jazz.

Four Tet and Floating Points have played a key role in introducing cosmic jazz to UK dancefloors, and their own productions resonate with echoes of Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. Meanwhile the footwork of Jlin and the Teklife crew twists old jazz licks into impossible new shapes. And acid house outlier Hieroglyphic Being’s 2015 album We Are Not The First takes electronic music’s engagement with cosmic jazz into the realms of improvisation. Marshall Allen and Elliot Levin’s reeds work remarkably well amid Jamal Moss’s bleep and bass abstractions, while Greg Fox’s free drumming explodes the rhythmic grids.

It might not be jazz per se, but this is music you can imagine Sun Ra digging as he spirals around Saturn’s rings. Who knows if this is the shape of jazz to come? But with their expansive sonic visions, these artists are taking the music into new dimensions

This article was featured in The Wire's 2015 Rewind issue, alongside Abi Bliss on underground music thriving outside the metropolis, Frances Morgan on women writing about music, Patrick Ward on the return of the concept album, and Richard Stacey on MCs growing up in public. Subscribers can read these via Exact Editions.

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