The London future-jazz titans on a decade of mind-bending sonic ecstasy and innovation
The Comet Is Coming have delivered the album title of 2022: Hyper-Dimensional Expansion Beam. It is a phrase that gets straight to the heart of the group’s essence, balancing a sense of ecstatic energy with a spiritual bent that encourages its audience to throw down the barriers of their mind and embrace life’s full capacity.
It is not just a collection of buzzwords that the London jazz leaders have chosen for the name of their third album, but more an attempt to offer context for the music that lies within. As they established on Channel the Spirits (2016) and Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery (2019), the trio have a freewheeling, formless sense of expressing themselves that is rooted in a culture of improvisation, where songwriting and structure are secondary to mutual understanding and exploration.
“An expansion beam is something that broadens your horizons,” explains Shabaka Hutchings, the band’s virtuosic saxophonist and one-man walking music industry. “If you have more information or more knowledge, you enter another dimension of understanding. The music is a way of expanding your dimensional awareness of the possibilities of music: commercial, but not commercial; exploratory, but not too exploratory.”
Hutchings, who for The Comet Is Coming purposes goes by King Shabaka, is joined by Danalogue (aka Dan Leavers) on keyboards/synths and drummer Betamax (Max Hallett), with the latter two also serving as the group’s in-house producers. The trio, it would be fair to say, are firmly united in their vision for the band’s work.
“People often talk about music as a language,” says Hallett. “But here we are seeing it as an ancient technology that has the power to affect the mind and change the perception of reality.”
“It’s like we’re doubling down on the idea that we’re using music as a tool to change your brain state,” adds Leavers. “We tend to have these really intense gigs, so with this record, we wanted to unite the live sound and the studio sound a little bit more.”
Their words brim with the same artistic idealism that animates them both on stage and in the studio. This album was recorded via the method that they now call their own: a few days of unplanned, longform sessions of improvised playing, followed by several months of arduous post-production work. In this case, nine hours of raw music were wrangled and whittled until 45 fiery, compact minutes of feverish intensity and vivacity remained.
“We record in a slightly backwards manner, where we almost write the music after we’ve recorded it,” says Leavers. “Sometimes for a track that ends up being four minutes long, we may have played it, or played an improvisation that included those moments, for half an hour. It’s like sampling yourself in a way.”
If it sounds like a challenging process, it most definitely is. Sifting through the mountains of raw materials to find, as Hallett calls them, “the moments when the energies and magical, colourful collisions happened”, is labour-intensive, but the painstaking work more than pays off with the end result.
“I always loved this Aphex Twin quote,” says Leavers. “Someone asked him how he knew when a track was finished, and he said, ‘When I hate it’. That quote makes complete sense to me. It tells you that you have to work on something really fucking hard and long. If I’m still enjoying a track, it’s like, well, maybe I need to give it some more work.”
The group’s trademark bombastic, spiritual jazz-referencing dynamism is at full tilt on tracks like ‘Code’ and ‘Pyramids’, while their muscularity has never been more aggressively on display than on ‘Angel of Darkness’, where they hit a deep, bluesy groove that Hutchings digs twice as deep with his manic, shovelling sax shrills.
For the first time, the band left London’s legendary Total Refreshment Centre studios and relocated instead to Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Box, Wiltshire, which Leavers describes as “the most beautiful studio I’ve ever been to.” It is a measure of the band’s ever-growing confidence that they were able to take the move in their stride, while Leavers’ experience producing for artists including Snapped Ankles, Alabaster dePlume and Flamingods has only enhanced his sure-footedness at hunting down the particular sounds that he wants from The Comet Is Coming.
It will have escaped nobody’s attention that The Comet Is Coming have been hovering around the epicentre of the booming London jazz scene since first coming together in 2013. Hutchings has been the unelected ringleader of the movement, stemming not just from his work here, but also as co-founder of Sons of Kemet and his own band, Shabaka & The Ancestors. If that wasn’t enough, he also released his first full-length solo album, Afrikan Culture, earlier this year. If anyone understands the allure of being immersed in a community of like-minded creatives, it must be him.
“The scene is a construct that people decide to use to describe multiple processes happening,” says Hutchings. “Processes of different musicians having creative experiences together and delivering those to an audience. If everyone in that scene has an energy that says we want to keep making creative music, then it’ll keep going forward.”
Thanks in no small part to The Comet Is Coming, there is no sign of the scene slowing; indeed, Leavers sees the future as being very bright. “I think there’s going to be a second wave where things evolve and go pretty leftfield,” he says. “Players can play in lots of different outfits and combinations and that’s a good way to create lots of new mutations, like in DNA.”
The group point to new voices like Nala Sinephro, the Caribbean-Belgian composer and musician signed to Warp, whose debut album Space 1.8 in 2021 featured London jazz luminaries such as Nubya Garcia and Eddie Hick, as being emblematic of the way the scene is heading: jazz in philosophy, if not exactly in sound.
“The great thing is that you just never know what the next thing is going to be,” says Hutchings. “There are always going to be people who have different solutions to the problem of how to keep vitality in music and how to express ourselves. It’s exciting to know that in five years, or even two years, there are going to be younger musicians that have new ways of expressing themselves. Obviously, I’ve got a particular language or way of playing that I’ve developed over the years, so someone might be listening to that and then start from that point and go forward.”
Hutchings is acutely aware of the scale of his impact, even if he is too modest to address it directly. As a graduate of the education and development organisation Tomorrow’s Warriors, which has also given breaks to the likes of Eska, Moses Boyd and Soweto Kinch, he now sees the value of investing in the future generations, too, and takes time to enthuse about the 14-year-old bassoonist Nahuel Angius-Thomas, a recent Tomorrow’s Warriors signee, who Hutchings describes as “jaw-droppingly amazing.”
Hutchings’ own career has always seemed eye-wateringly stressful to outside observers, balancing his three bands with his solo work and frequent collaborations. “This is what I will be doing for as long as I have the energy to do it,” he tells us, but the interview takes place only a few weeks after he publicly announced that Sons of Kemet will be “closing this chapter of the band’s life for the foreseeable future”.
“It’s not necessarily hard to manage,” he says. “It just meant that I was really busy. When I finished touring with one group, I’d go and tour with another one. But I’ll probably ease up the amount of gigs that I do from 2024 and focus more on my own music. I’ve got a solo record coming out that year that’s mainly based on clarinets and flutes and stuff like that. It’s going to be quite a big change. For one, I’m going to be 40. It will be a shift away from the saxophone as the dominant form of expression.”
Hutchings is quick to point out that his passion for music is undimmed, but it is clear that he is approaching a new phase of his career. “I am falling out of love with the saxophone. It’s a bit clackety and you’ve got to use reeds which slowly deteriorate whenever you use them. But it does fulfil a good purpose and it is loud, which is handy for groups like Comet, who are also very loud. But yeah, nothing can go on forever. It’s not like you fall out of love with the saxophone and that’s it for the rest of my life. You’ve got to have phases of stepping back and going forward.”
It goes some way to explaining the prominence of flute on Afrikan Culture, specifically the shakuhachi, a Japanese variety of the woodwind instrument that Hutchings shares a passion for with Hallett’s father, who even gave Hutchings some lessons. The shakuhachi appears on Hyper-Dimensional Expansion Beam too, thanks to some judicious auxiliary additions from Hallett and Leavers.
Production duo Hallett and Leavers have their own musical life outside of the band, in the form of the Soccer96 project that they began shortly after meeting in Brighton over a decade ago. It leans into the futurist, space-age synth aesthetic that is another key ingredient in The Comet Is Coming, with Leavers in particular fascinated by the digital palette.
“I got really into studying the singularity and AI,” he says, reflecting on the release of Soccer96’s recent album Inner Worlds. “I listened to a lot of engineers who are making the AI talk about how best to guide the intelligence-learning process to try to make it the best possible situation for us. I got really into the sound of vocoders and singing through synths, especially choir synths.”
The latter make their way onto ‘Code’ too, to haunting effect. “It sounds like the technology is trying to approximate humanity. It feels very resonant at this time, when everything is becoming integrated and we might have Neuralink inserted into our brains in our lifetime,” says Leavers, with a smile that barely conceals his anxiety.
For now, there does not appear to be any danger of the curtain coming down on The Comet Is Coming like it has done on Sons of Kemet. The band have already begun discussions about their next project together, and a major world tour awaits them after the release of the new album. They’ve worked hard to expand their own horizons; now it’s over to us.
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