Twenty-seven years ago jazz legend Herbie Hancock released his synthesizer/turntable single "Rockit." The song was a moderate hit single and a big winner at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards. It was also the last time a single by a jazz artist made an appearance on the Billboard Hot 100, Norah Jones notwithstanding. It also seemed to mark the last step forward for a genre that had spent the previous thirty years speeding through a growth spurt that included the be-bop of Charlie Parker, the hard bop of Clifford Brown, the modal cool of Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman's free jazz, and the Miles Davis-spearheaded fusion. Ever since the wave of fusion that appeared to take over jazz starting in the late 1960s, a song like "Rockit" seemed like an inevitability as organs and pianos gave way to synthesizers. The addition of the turntable scratch was a revolutionary step forward for jazz that introduced it as an instrument and wove the strands of electronic and jazz music together even tighter.
Then a funny thing happened. Nothing. There was very little follow-up to Hancock´s new take on fusion. Electronic music continued to grow, mature and change while jazz did very little growing, maturing or changing in any meaningful way. Artists from both genres continued to pull inspiration from one another to make hybrid genres like acid jazz and trip-hop, but very few fruits were born from these half-hearted liaisons. The few who took tentative steps forward found themselves widely imitated and potentially revolutionary music was quickly bastardized into dinner music for yuppies.
It is into this landscape that Flying Lotus (born Steven Ellison) steps with his new album "Cosmogramma," which dropped on the Warp label earlier this year. Flying Lotus, now three albums deep into his career, is perhaps best known to most as the creator of Adult Swim's bumper music. His first two albums investigated the intersection of IDM, dubstep, and J Dilla-inspired hip-hop beats while toying with bass and synth lines that resemble the heads of jazz tunes.
In between his last album, 2008's "Los Angeles," and "Cosmogramma" he suffered the loss of his aunt, the jazz harpist Alice Coltrane, and his mother in the same year. In a recent interview with Pitchfork he talks about "Cosmogramma" as a response to those losses. Predictably, he visits the music of his aunt for inspiration, and the thrilling things on "Cosmogramma" are the spots where you can hear this inspiration show up on the album.
The album starts with a cacophonous headrush of free jazz-influenced 8-bit squeaks, squaks and squeals of distortion before a thunderous bass drum hit shoots the rest of the album into an outer space whose harps, saxophones, and synthesizers (here playing a role normally taken up by a pianist) create a sonic texture that resembles the universe of Sun Ra on his best albums. The densely layered album, which demands to be heard through headphones, sounds like a futuristic big band, with each layer providing an important component. Like the best jazz bands, no single element overshadows the others. Even the much vaunted collaboration with Radiohead's Thom Yorke acts as simply a layer interacting with others layers.
Yorke's track, "...And the World Laughs With You," is crucial, though. It is the song that proves this album is a Flying Lotus album first and foremost.Yorke receives no special treatment as his cut up sample floats behind several layers of instruments, providing the song a ghostly presence. Equally important is Yorke's lyric, "I need to know you're out there/I need to know you're out there listening." His voice, which can only be described as haunted, serves as a poignant and painful reminder that this is an album made by someone still trying to process a very painful loss. Pulling further from his Aunt Alice, Flying Lotus' music serves as a part of the grieving process just as Alice's music of the early 1970s served as a way for her to express her anguish at the loss of her husband, John Coltrane. This point is underscored later on the album when his cousin, Ravi Coltrane, appears to provide a mournful saxophone texture to several tracks.
But this isn't simply a jazz record. House, dubstep, and IDM all mingle comfortably with the funk-inspired orchestrations and jazz-inspired synth heads. Curiously, though, all forms of electronic music are mutated in such a way that they sound more like the stompers of Gene Krupa (or even, at times, like the electrifying drum work of Max Roach) and less like the work of Four Tet or Burial. Much like Herbie Hancock's showcase of the turntable as a viable musical instrument, Flying Lotus makes his case for the laptop. His dexterity and skill at interweaving sonic layers sounds as impressive as any jazz soloist. Intricate bass lines screech to a halt to make way for a rumbling synth line, over which a harp, several layers of string instruments and electronic zaps appear. Calling it masterful wouldn't do justice to the jaw dropping ability of Flying Lotus on his instrument of choice.
Jazz, which has spent the better part of three decades molding itself into a retrospective genre, needs an album like "Cosmogramma" to remind itself that looking forward doesn't have to come at the expense of knowing where you're from. Purists may bristle at the thought of their beloved music setting a course toward the shores of music made on a laptop. After all, electronic music has long been perceived (however unfairly) as anathema to the spirit of improvisation and soulful melodicism that makes up the backbone of jazz music. But "Cosmogramma," with its constantly shifting soundscape of 8-bit synth lines, drum beats, bass parts, and careful selection of vocal saxophone, harp and key samples, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that computerized big band is capable of jamming, interacting, and even improvising. This is soulful music and an injection of life into a genre that has spent far too long chasing ghosts. To those who say real jazz music can never be played on a computer I hold this up to you as a rebuttal, and offer a reminder of something once said by one of your giants (and Flying Lotus' uncle), John Coltrane: "you can play a shoestring if you're sincere."