Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery: The Comet is Coming
Experience by itself, the phenomenological philosopher Edmund Husserl said, is not science. In the hands of London band The Comet is Coming, experience is a strict adherence to improvisation and exploration that filters the scientific process into a musical call and response. It has purified their sound. So perhaps Husserl is only part right. Maybe some experience is scientific. Maybe some music is science.
Because of this comprehensive reliance on exploratory noises, there’s no true designation for the band, whose album Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery was released in March 2019 on Universal Music’s legendary jazz label, Impulse! Records. Each song on the album is illusory. The firm musical structure of one section burns away to something entirely different a few bars later. And that cycle echoes as the musicians repeatedly crescendo in metamorphosis. One song marches into dancing electronics. Another one animates a glistening African polyphony with new romantic keyboards. As such, bandmembers have balked at stringent jazz classifications in interviews. Their music launches across a broader spectrum, though there is no denying the jazz pedigree that snakes through their music. Lifeforce, however, is not purely one thing. It is space jazz for club dancers. But also, it is a cultural movement, driving listeners to inspect their own emotional cosmologies. You can listen and you can dance. You’ll likely do both at once. But some time, you should just listen to this recording the entire way through to finish and wait there for several minutes in the heart of its leave, digesting it. It’s that good.
The trio first reached acclaim before joining together. A lot of the acts in London’s gyrating musical community interchange members. Lineups expand and contract. People guest on sessions and shows. Keyboardist Dan Leavers and drummer Max Hallett also perform as the duo Soccer96, and Hutchings sat in with the duo resulting in an electrifying connection the three decided to pursue. But because of this close intermingling of musicians, the three members of Comet have adopted pseudonyms, a dissociative notion possibly meant to sift out preconceptions. Leavers becomes Danalogue, Hallet is Betamax, while Hutchings is anointed King Shabaka. It might come across a bit like conceit. It’s not. A quick look at the band’s website (www.thecometiscoming.co.uk) displays how dedicated a thread this truly is. There amid links to their music, promo videos, tour dates and social media links, you’ll find an interactive visual triangulation key that activates their philoso-poetic manifesto. And even if this was arrogance, it wouldn’t matter. Once the music starts, all other focus is obliterated. Kick out the jams, Afro-Futurist Spacemen.
On Hutchings’s webpage, the 33 -yr.-old describes the creative variance of his projects. “In some ways it is my group,” he says referring to Sons of Kemet, “I can say, ‘No, stop here, this should be a break’.” With the Comet is Coming, the music opens up more unanimously. “We don’t talk about what anyone else is supposed to do. We all just play what we think it should be.” In a March 2019 interview with Capitol Bop, Leavers continues that hive-mindedness. “Jazz also has the trappings of the ‘bandleader’ who typically writes the tunes and directs the vibe of the recording, and this often creates the assumption that if we are jazz, that Shabaka leads the group. In actuality we are a united trio, and we compose as a group, each of us contributing and leading at different times.”
“Summon the Fire,” from Comet’s latest release
Lifeforce is the band’s second full length, coming almost two years after the dark Death to the Planet EP. They came out blazing with Channel the Spirits, their first full album, which was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize, awarded to the UK’s best album each year. On Death to the Planet and Channel the Spirits, the band’s improvisational momentum overwhelms the individual songs and the music comes without the resonance, cohesion and density of Lifeforce. There are peels of Coltrane and Hank Mobley and reflections of the synth punk band Suicide. Lifeforce’s music embraces an ornate harmony, psychedelic and, at times, perverse, yet the album remains harmonically attuned. Leavers and Hutchings both studied saxophone with the same teacher, which likely attributes to this consonant devotion, though the two didn’t meet till later, when Soccer96 and Sons of Kemet were gigging the same London clubs.
Jazz is in the midst of a resurgence, universally. Here in Los Angeles, former McCoy Tyner saxophonist Azar Lawrence has seen his career revitalized, while Kamasi Washington, long a member of the late Gerald Wilson’s extraordinary big band, stepped into the spotlight with the majestic if somewhat predictable Heaven and Earth in 2018. Washington’s ensuing Grammy snub provided almost as much notoriety as if he’d won the award. A slew of savvy promoters now polka dot the calendars of Angeleno clubs with genre crashing. Local label Resonance Records has been acquainting jazz fans new and old with a trove of recently unearthed or rediscovered music by John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, and jazz guitarist Grant Green. In June, The Comet is Coming will return for a second leg of their US tour, followed by two Sons of Kemet stateside dates in August. All of this signifies nothing, but also everything. Just when it seemed as if the electric guitar would distort every available musical space to stupefaction, a new jazz has been uncorked. And this time, it’s replaced American blues with a modal invention you can dance to.
The Comet is Coming isn’t an American band. King Shabaka and Danalogue and Betamax are Londoners, though Hutchings moved to Barbados at six, returning to England a decade later. Their influences are communal and immediate. Raves, Island music, Can, and Sun Ra each occupy space in the band’s geometry.
Since beginning their electronic duo, Hallett and Leavers have intentionally kept the music organic, utilizing live keyboards and drums instead of canned sounds patched in from onstage laptops. That same organic ideology extends to the Comet is Coming. In the Capitol Bop interview, Leavers outlined the basic tenets of his sound philosophy. “Rather than building a synth collection, or putting focus on harmonic complexity or technical dexterity as a pianist, I think more in terms of sonics, timbre, light and shade, effects and moving fast around the faders and functions when I play live. They come from the late ’70s/early ’80s so they share a similar sound to some older music, the technicolor charm and the analogue warmth and grit.” When more angular noises arrive, their dissonance comes as clarification, a hovering glissando that escapes from the keyboards, a sharp but retreating interjection from Hutchings’s horn. The Comet players don’t luxuriate in cacophony. This isn’t free jazz skronk. The resolutions bounce in melodicism rather than across angular avant-garde flame outs. These songs can get aggressive, but rarely is the music lost to that theme
Because the End Is Really the Beginning
Lifeforce is like a postulation, built on theoretical blocks of sound that formulate and expand the Comet’s methodology. The electro spell of Soccer96’s Rewind raises a flag over the borderless confines of Lifeforce. The duo’s repetitive inventions cycle through song to song, with Hutchings puncturing them with his horn lines. If you knit “BBBBBang” from Soccer96’s 2016 release together with Hutching’s solo outing on the We Out Here documentary soundtrack, it wouldn’t be a perfect match, but the edges of Comet’s universe would close in. Maybe you detect the snippet edit fusion of Teo Macero and Miles Davis, or a bit of Afrika Bambaataa’s electro rap. Maybe you were watching Netflix and that Winona Ryder sci fi thing with the ominous synth soundtrack. Whatever you recognize, it’s safe to say that Comet’s influence is Comet. Everything else is just stitch work at song’s end. And that’s the art of their invention, their influences melded into a similar tonal landscape but with a completely new identity.
At the end of the 1980s, the Pacific Northwest was emitting a beacon to punks wanting to start a band. Most of those who answered that call were unskilled ears who didn’t converse in the written language of music, but who could still sling guitars across the edge of a song like a buzz-saw. It was the age of grunge. But just as Nirvana broke into the mainstream, Seattle’s musical community began to spiral into a surfeit of overdoses and violence that culminated in the tragic murder of Mia Zapata, singer for punk band the Gits. These were rough moments but they spoke to a cultural condition that had once afflicted the black community symbiotic with jazz scenes across the country. Not wholly about music anymore, the scene became the thing, fostering bands, zines, clubs, and the nine hellish rings of addiction, before the inevitable disintegration set in.
With the London jazz scene, something else has happened. The scene has continually nourished itself, staving off implosion by building on an association of musicians who move freely across musical styles. Because these next wave jazzers are committed to conversing within (and to some extent without) the confines of musical language, they express themselves along the structure of musical inclusivity, rather than a codex of circled wagons. Many of the jazz scene’s musicians come from immigrant families and are veterans of the Tomorrow’s Warriors music education program, including Hutchings. And so, a shapely openness has rooted into the scene rather than a subjugated fence of dismissiveness.
Of Comet’s recorded output, “Super Zodiac” is the most accessibly eloquent. The fifth song on Lifeforce starts with a prologue of translucent synth. The song churns into a collision of sax and drum. As the force of their tempo surrounds them, Hutchings pulls off a squawking melody while Hallett pounds against it. Leavers sweeps into their wake. The athleticism mounts in washes of keyboard, until, exhausted, the music fades into the next song. It’s a magical piece of engagement.
That next song is “Astral Flying,” and the chirping keyboard opening shimmers as it separates from “Zodiac.” Hutching’s horn is a clarinet one moment, a bassoon the next, floating along the budding synthesizers. A rush of prog sprinkles across the delicacy, until the music downshifts into a slowly keyed refrain dotted by morose tom beats in the background and a slowly weaving horn line that gives way to more synthesized circuits that then themselves fade into the next song. It’s an orchestral hallmark. One of the gratifying quirks of Lifeforce is that multiplies well beyond the sum of its musicians.
But it is the first and last songs of Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery that are this sets reflexively brilliant dazzlers. On the opener, “Because The End Is Really The Beginning,” the band set up the tools that will decipher the next 45 minutes. And on “The Universe Wakes Up,” those same tools slowly retreat into frenzy, and then, silence. While that last piece of music is perhaps the bands most emulative — it references Pharoah Sanders’s archly lush free jazz sonata, The Creator Has A Master Plan — it is not Sanders. Amid The Cure-like keyboards, when Hutchings’s sax begins to scream, it comes buoyantly, not bathed in fury. Sanders in company needed 32 minutes and change to get through their musical treatise. Comet’s “Universe” finishes in 1/5th the time. Once the song has finished, its reverberations continue into the quiet of its absence. That’s not a musical trick. It’s the enigmatic charm of this recording.
The Universe Wakes Up
Henry Cherry is Jazz and Art Critic at Riot Material Magazine. He is also a photographer, writer and documentary filmmaker who lives in Hollywood. Mr. Cherry’s work has appeared in Huck, PBS, OC Weekly, Los Angeles Review of Books, Artillery, and LA Weekly. A documentary film on master jazz musician Henry Grimes is in the works. For contact information go to his website: www.henrycherry.com