If there was any doubt that jazz was having a resurgence, the amazing volley of sounds emerging from Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and in particular, London clubs and performance halls it is at least apparent that a new generation of players and practitioners are breathing life into jazz’s post Marsalian-husk. What the new avant garde is doing, however, goes beyond the needlessly controversial fusion or electric/plugged-in phases the genre grappled with in the mid-70’s and into the ’80’s, where the old guard and its adherents set out to polish and refine jazz, separating it from its evolution into an experimental, Black artform in favor of crafting pieces suitable for Carnegie Hall or the Lincoln Center.
Fast forward to the present day — March 20th in Philadelphia to be precise, where The Comet is Coming, playing to a typically mixed Philly crowd that arguably knows an impressive thing or two about where jazz is heading themselves, in a more intimate wing of the Fillmore. From the band’s opening note it was clear that any fear or reverence to any old guard was going to be obliterated. In fact, the very idea of jazz was washed away by the enormous wall of sounds coming from Danalogue’s Roland synths, Betamax’s raw percussion, and the inimitable King Shabaka — a saxophonist whose list of credits is absolutely awe-inspiring (his group Sons of Kemet, in particular, whose album Your Queen is a Reptile was a top-10 favorite of mine in a loaded 2018 release schedule). With a soaring intro, where Danalogue’s deceptively simple keyboard manipulations, perforated by Shabaka’s sax mixed perfectly, The Comet launched into an intoxicating swell. At times the band felt swept up in its own array of sci-fi film score influenced sounds evoking the whimsy and mania of the avant-weird film Zardoz one minute, and the melancholic intensity of Dune the next, as they swirled together, taking visual cues for subtle changes from each other’s dance moves.
For a band that eschews the jazz-moniker while certainly paying homage to its masters, the band ended their opening salvo with sweeping passages that would fit snugly in Miles’ bluer moments, with Betamax’s tempered drum style enveloping Danalogue, the wild man of the group, gently coaxing a lushness out of Danalogue’s heavily effected, dual-keyboard set-up into perfectly down tempo hardbop. But this was only a set up; soon the band launched into blissed-out renditions of album tracks like “Summon the Fire” and “Blood of the Past”, stand-out tracks from their new album (released by legendary jazz label Impulse!) Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery in all of their heavy, My Bloody Valentine-meets-Massive Attack’s Mezzanine glory. Despite some rather charming, lulling moments of disembodied dreaminess, the band was at its best when they encased the room with sheets of shimmering noise. And the audience responded in kind moving willfully to their beat.
Sure, The Comet’s set was deeply influenced by a wide swath of sounds: there were moments that sounded like Chicago house and Detroit Techno, Betamax playing impossible beats veering in and out of 4/4 time. And yes, some songs, like “Unity” with its extended synth intro, felt tropical, almost Afrobeat at times. Still it was the band’s promise of deeply spiritual, Thembi-esque passages informed by crashing, basement noise-rock that sold the day. When Danalogue dances, when Betamax plays with unbridled zeal, this is the band saying that there’s a kind of whimsy in being untethered by genre, even one as expansive as jazz. King Shabaka, unhinged and unencumbered by the sometimes weightiness of his other bands’ righteous political aesthetic, floated across the stage possessed of a rare spirit. His sax was expressive, loud, and soulful, darting in and out and between the walls of sound. He plays his instrument with the vocality of a lead singer in a punk band, the riffs, when they’re not bound up in playful discourse with the rhythm, firing out of his horn with the fervor of a machine gun. By the time the trio had launched into “Journey through the Asteroid Belt,” a song that for them, might as well be their hit single from their first album, Channel the Spirits, a song with its air raid siren blasts of sax majesty, eyes and ears were already sufficiently enraptured. We were already theirs.
The Comet is Coming may not be a jazz band, they may not be rock, but their music moves through the spaces of genre like their namesake: violent, hot, and beautiful to see.
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