What would Sun Ra think? How might he react, that is, if he were told that the cosmic jazz machine he built—the Sun Ra Arkestra—was still announcing new tour dates in the distant year of 2017? Raised eyebrows, perhaps, or more likely an inscrutable half-smirk. Here in the future, however, it is not so surprising that audiences will turn out for a night of spiritual jazz presided over by Marshall Allen, the Arkestra’s longtime player of saxophone and Electronic Valve Instrument. After all, in the year following the passing of star-children Maurice White and David Bowie, the Arkestra’s sonic happenings might represent a ticket-buyer’s last chance to be a part of the utopian musical “equation” that influenced both the pop world and the counterculture in the 1970s. As morbid as it might sound, Arkestra shows are like watching a light show produced by the supernova of a long-dead star.
What’s most surprising is not that Arkestra shows still feel contemporary, but how the Arkestrian approach to jazz is healthier than it has been in decades. Pioneers like Allen and Pharoah Sandersare not only finding collaborators and kindred souls in the next generation to join them onstage—they’re damn near outnumbered by them. The range of artists and collectives boldly waving high the freak flag of cosmic jazz is surprisingly broad in 2017, and that’s not even counting Afrofuturist pop modeled on the Arkestra more in concept than in actual frequencies. Without further preamble, find below a quick lookbook of nine artists each carrying the torch for cosmic jazz in their own ways, from time-defying cross-generational holdouts like Idris Ackamoor to newer mutants like Morgan Craft and Hypnotic Brass Ensemble.
Of all the artists on this list, Washington likely needs the least introduction. The saxophonist’s breakout LP, The Epic, deservedly topped numerous 2015 year-end lists, no doubt nudged by his association with Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label and his standout performance on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. The Epic’s association with the cosmic jazz revival is so extensive, it perhaps (falsely) suggests the renewed interest is a one-man movement. A few months before sharing the 2016 Pitchfork Fest bill with the Arkestra, Washington played a one-night-only triple-header alongside Marshall Allen and Pharoah Sanders at Brooklyn’s Greenpoint Terminal—a show many critics took for a literal passing of the torch moment. But you shouldn’t hold the high visibility of Washington’s echoing take on spiritual jazz against him, any more than you should let it obscure the other great artists to be discovered on this list.
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble
Existing outside the mainstream music industry, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble might not be known to you unless you recently caught Reuben Atlas’ PBS documentary on the group or happened upon one of their street performances in New York or Chicago. Literal scions of the Arkestra, the eight brothers who comprise Hypnotic Brass are all the sons of Kelan Phil Cohran, best known for his stint as trumpeter for Sun Ra during his Chicago period (1959-1961). When the Arkestra moved on, Cohran stayed in Chicago and built an equally impressive legacy of his own, passing along the Arkestra’s create-your-own-reality brand of DIY to his sons. (Watch Cohran and sons discuss the cosmic nature of their shared ethos below in “yoUniverse,” a short outtake from the doc that Atlas has shared with us below.) Of course, none of this pre-history is necessary to be blown away by Hypnotic’s brass onslaught, which is as likely to include covers of OutKast’s “Spottieottiedopalicious” or Fela Kuti’s “Water No Get Enemy” as they are subtle and moving original compositions recalling Ra.
Om’Mas Keith may be best known to Pitchfork readers as one-third of the brilliant but elusive future soul outfit Sa Ra Creative Partners (and to some as a recurring character on Diddy’s making the band). But much like the brothers Hypnotic, the producer and multi-instrumentalist is the child of avant garde jazz musicians, who spent formative portions his childhood literally sitting at Sun Ra’s feet. In the aftermath of Sa Ra, Keith has become a behind-the-scenes everywhere-man—a composer, producer, and musician smuggling bits of the cosmic jazz DNA into the music of Miguel, Thundercat, the Internet, Frank Ocean, Erykah Badu, Anderson .Paak, and Raury, just to name a few. One gets the clear feeling that these post-Sa Ra productions are a secondary, not yet final stage, in Om’Mas’ artistic evolution. But whatever future projects bring, when Sun Ra gave him his name—from om, the original cosmic syllable in Hindu thought—he unleashed a formidable sound on the universe.
Although the word on Spalding’s Emily’s D+Evolution is that the 2016 album is her foray into rock, the heavy stew of Spalding’s virtuosic playing, Karriem Riggins’ drums, and production from Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti is much closer to Weather Report than Black Sabbath. True, her tone on the bass does tend to dwell in that ultraviolet end of the chromatic scale where funk, heavy metal, and Miles Davis live together in dark harmony. But her aleatory approach to composition and choral voice arrangements all channel a music of the spheres. As heard on “Good Lava,” Spalding’s take on the cosmic jazz tradition seems to be about understanding or experiencing the earth as a foreign planet.
Resura Arkestra is truly an institution in their native Brooklyn. The big band is made up of players who, over the last several decades, have “graduated” from the Indoda Entsha African dance and percussion troupe, organized locally by choreographer and martial arts instructor E. Preston Riddick. The accretion of pan-African playing styles resulting from this recruitment process gives Resura Arkestra a truly expansive sound, from its full horn section to spoken-word parts delivered by Riddick in a style reminiscent of the Last Poets. Their original compositions can be hard to place in either jazz swing time or Afro-Latin clave mode, but regardless, to hear them move loosely around one another live while still locked in polyrhythmic groove is something to behold.
Idris Ackamoor & the Pyramids
Idris Ackamoor, a veteran of Cecil Taylor’s Black Music Ensemble, is one of those cosmic jazz warriors who, like Pharoah Sanders and Marshall Allen, simply never stopped. But it’s also not incongruous to count him as part of the current revival. In 2016, Ackamoor reformed his ‘70s Afro-jazz outfit the Pyramids to release the acclaimed album We Be All Africans. The Pyramids’ signature sound combines spiritual jazz with a heavy dose of Frafra music from Northern Ghana, a result of an extended 1972 tour on the continent that included a visit to the Ghanaian town of Bolgatanga. Some 45 years after that initial connection, the Pyramids collaborated with Kologo star Guy One for a uniquely Afrofuturist single “Tinoge Ya Ta’a Ba.” Between these new black Atlantic collaborations and the buzz around We Be All Africans, it’s arguable that Ackamoor’s star has never shone brighter than right now.
London weirdos the Heliocentrics have reverse-engineered their own way-out version of the cosmic jazz sound by fusing elements of funk, Ethio-jazz, and psyche rock a la the Silver Apples. In their own releases and notable collaborations with Mulatu Astatke (the father figure of modern Ethiopian music) and Melvin Van Peebles (the father figure of Blaxploitation cinema), the Heliocentrics have revealed a slinky, versatile way with a next-dimension groove. They often feel like the loosest, jazziest elements of a krautrock jam made into their own thing. If funkier arrangements are never far from drummer Malcolm Catto’s sticks, neither are the group’s cosmic conceits, as suggested by titles like “Big Bang Resurrection” or “Telepathic Routine.”
Like others on this list, trumpeter Theo Croker is a child of jazz—or rather, a grandchild, specifically to Grammy winner Doc Cheatham. His connection to the cosmic jazz tradition, though, is more circuitous. As a player, Croker’s melodic tone and restless versatility tend to put him more in the “stretch music” spirit of his fellow trumpeter and rough contemporary Christian Scott. On “Transcend,” for instance, he plays off a rhythm section that works as a recognizable dancehall beat. Though his trumpet is often smoother and less transgressive than Scott’s, Croker consistently stacks his compositions with tones that are too free and spacey to be labelled anything but cosmic, often recalling the ’70s output of Detroit’s Tribe Records. Though Croker’s 2016 album Escape Velocitydid not garner the accolades of others mentioned here, it’s no less rewarding on repeated listens.
A veteran player now working from his home studio in Amsterdam, Morgan Craft has taken his guitar improvisation in a radical direction. His solo releases are almost solely concerned with space and tone, with crunchy dub grooves occasionally emerging from the ambient washes and cosmic slop. It is an impressively wide range of sound for a solo player who improvises his recordings. While the writing and artwork accompanying these releases evince a utopian interrogation of political realities, song titles like “RQ-3 Dark Star” and “XENON1T” suggest a different sort of futurism—one in which experimentation is taken to such an extreme, it becomes a systematic exploration of the very possibilities of this kind of music.
Written by Edwin “STATS” Houghton