Sixty years after Sun Ra released his debut album, the influence of the late avant garde jazz musician and “cosmic philosopher” persists. In the intervening decades artists as diverse as Spiritualized, Krautrock pioneers Amon Düül and electronic minimalists Silver Apples have attempted to emulate his freeform style. But now in 2016, his true heirs may just have arrived.
Ra is a clear touchstone for futurists The Comet Is Coming, whose debut album Channel The Spirits arrives this month. Formed three years ago, after saxophonist – and compulsive collaborator – Shabaka Hutchings spontaneously joined funk duo Soccer96 on stage, the trio combine Sun Ra’s mythological themes and love of the experimental, whipping up a fusion of jazz, Afrobeat and electronica in an improvisational, intergalactic mash-up. Sci-fi song titles such as Slam Dunk In A Black Hole and Lightyears drive the point home.
An occasional member of the Arkestra – Sun Ra’s freeform ensemble, still going more than two decades after his death – Hutchings thinks “the truest link we have to Sun Ra is being exploratory with ways of approaching conventional instruments”. It’s an ethos as much as a style, starting with an “orthodox jazz sensibility” and taking it to the dancefloor. That’s where The Comet Is Coming really tear it up, with tracks such as the pulsating Star Furnace and the dirty sax-fuelled Neon Baby aimed squarely at making feet move.
Threaded through all this is Ra-like myth-making. You can see it in the names the trio adopt – synth player Dan Leavers is Danalogue the Conqueror, drummer Max Hallett becomes Betamax Killer, but most telling is Hutchings’s pseudonym King Shabaka, a homage to the ancient Nubian ruler of Lower Egypt who, as the sax player tells it, “transcribed the doctrine that would become Kemeticism” – a belief system that revives the ancient Egyptian polytheism dear to Sun Ra. It’s also reflected in the name of one of Hutchings’s other jazz outfits, Sons Of Kemet (he’s in jazz skronkers Melt Yourself Down too, a situation he describes as an “administrative nightmare”).
So is all of this inspiration or just mere imitation? Hutchings argues it’s the former. “Being avant garde in the same way as Sun Ra was avant garde isn’t very true to Sun Ra.” Instead they share a mindset, an “acknowledgement we’re in space”. Far out, but can they take it down to Earth and to the masses? Channel The Spirits is exuberant and – yes – ridiculous enough to bust out, and Hutchings concedes “a sync with a commercial could give us a wide appeal”, but he’s happier to see his band’s fanbase grow organically. The decision might not be his to make. Powered by Arkestral cosmic forces, The Comet Is Coming. Brace for impact.
Channel The Spirits is out now on The Leaf Label
• The Comet is Coming are also performing at Sydney festival 2017