Shabaka Hutchings has been one of the fastest rising stars in the world of jazz as of late, and more distinctly, has gained recognition as a pioneer in sonic experimentation. With three bands at his helm, the London saxophonist has been busy fulfilling all his musical dreams and fantasies, which has attracted not only the attention of jazz enthusiasts but the admiration of now-established jazz crossover stars such as Kamasi Washington.
And he hasn’t done this by the book either. Hutchings has gained this attention while also dividing his seemingly boundless energy between three projects. There is the ferocious Caribbean rhythmic jazz noise that he makes with Sons of Kemet, who will be playing Big Ears Festival in Knoxville (along with The Comet is Coming) later this week. Adding on to that is his group Shabaka and the Ancestors, where Hutchings has explored the many different African expressions of jazz, especially those of South Africa, where many of the band’s members hail from.
The project The Comet is Coming interweaves itself with much of Hutchings’ other work, music that courageously plays with many different types of world rhythm and musical traditions. What sets The Comet is Coming apart is its cosmic considerations, its unabashed yearning for interstellar musical storytelling. These elements of widescreen exploration, along with their sonic landscape, draws comparisons the band and much of Kamasi Washington’s work, which similarly reaches for lofty ideals in the midst space-age jazz breakdowns that circulate into pure fury.
Though The Comet is Coming can be casually compared to Washington’s music, the band also sets off on its own path, one farther removed the traditional modes and structures of jazz, and to a place where the path is unknown and obscured. What Hutchings discovers along the way is the dark underbelly of music, that conglomeration of sounds that is born out of a mysterious creative process few understand. Like the birth of the world, the birth of music is a strange process of colliding forces, of harmony and disorder, of separation and union. What emerges on “Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery” is far-reaching in both directions, towards the darkness of the unknown and the light of hope and unity.
One can tell simply by looking at the album’s surreal cover art that you aren’t being strapped in for a nice jazz pleasure trip. There is a potent and very real darkness here, which expresses itself in throbbing electronic sounds on the track “Birth of Creation,” a collision of sound which in turn leads to an even more aggressive darkness, via pulsing bass and expansive drums on “Summon the Fire.”
Intensity is par for the course here. “Blood of The Past” summons a darkness that churns, like a seething tub of magma spilling from the earth. When Kate Tempest’s voice appears bathed in thickened tones and warning of the evils of the human race, her words winding in apocalyptic spirals, you feel oppressed by its overwhelming presence, its overarching sonic authority:
“Unable to listen, we keep speaking
Moted by blood, unable to notice ourselves
Unable to stop and unwilling to learn”
By the end, with the song’s cycling, metallic ambience, the listener can expected to be exhausted, attacked and thrown about by the throes and pains of a world being born, torn apart, then born again. Like any human caught in this process, there is confusion and ultimately, a yearning to understand.
This is the moment when the light begins to make itself known, perhaps visually or inside the spirit of one of these confused humans. The universe, or deep mystery, would not be balanced without it, could surely not exist in only expanding, infinite darkness. “Super Zodiac” begins to lift the listener off of this dark, toiling ground into the sky, though at first it is a tumultuous ride. It is a busy, slightly jarring flight through the sky as hot winds from the burning land below rising ever higher, throwing you into different vantage points against your will.
Then there is “Astral Flying,” which rests more easily on the cosmic winds, arpeggiating synths and off-kilter rhythm leaving plenty of space for the emergence of higher sax tones, which, having been absent for much of the album, hit with more evocative power.
“Trust In The Lifeforce of The Deep Mystery” is insatiably rhythmic. Hutchings and his band aren’t afraid to flirt with near-cacophonous realms of rhythm, matching intense, driving drum beats with thick, sputtering sax lines. Even when the music opens up towards the latter half of the album, we are pulled and shifted by the beatwork deployed by The Comet is Coming. More than just rhythmic support, it invades your brain, such as on the upbeat track “Unity,” or inside the frantic rhythm of “Timewave Zero.”
“Timewave Zero” reminds me, and forgive me this, of the best parts about the original soundtrack for the SNES game Donkey Kong (really, it’s a gem). The syncopated, acoustic drum sections, draped with layers sultry saxophone and synth has the power to evoke those deep mysteries of the jungle, of nature uninhibited and flourishing by a dark design. Though “Timewave Zero” drifts into a much more dense texture of sound than the game’s cheesy synths, it captures a similar spirit.
The deep mystery the band pays homage to, then, is not just pure, positive light, but a mixture of the two, one giving way to the other throughout the journey of the music. The latter half of “Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery” lessens the burden considerably, discovering loftier, angelic tones that seem to float above the dark, formless void we inhabited at the album’s beginning.
“The Universe Wakes Up” follows through on the album’s celestial path. The Universe, throbbing and convulsing in opposing forces of darkness and light, ignorance and knowledge, abundance and emptiness, becomes conscious. Perhaps the band is referring to the waking up to wisdom, knowledge, and peace that humans, over a long and violent history, will finally experience. Or maybe the music narrates the the forming of the universe itself, which produced planets and stars, galaxies and nebulas, as well as an incredible array of forms, all crawling and slithering and breathing and eating and flowering on this strange blue world floating in space.
Regardless of the interpretation, this is an album not to miss, especially those looking for a mind-bending assault on the senses.