Tuesday, June 15, 2010

DNA Sequence: From Coltrane to Flying Lotus

Los Angeles-based laptop beat producer Flying Lotus has been getting a lot of press lately, thank to his excellent new record Cosmogramma. The record's rubbery, quick tempos and jazzy layers strongly recall, for me, the orchestral sweep of DJ Shadow's immortal 1996 opus ...Endtroducing, but updated sonically (it's grimier and hence less melodramatic), rhythmically (the beats here skid and careen and flutter rather than lope), and the presence of real (i.e., non-sampled) singing and instrumentation by some pretty big names show how Flying Lotus, also known as Steven Ellison, is taking his laptop out of the house.

The big names are just about as big as they get. It's one thing to get Thom Yorke to contribute vocals to your record. It's another entirely different and much bigger deal if you have blood relatives with the last name Coltrane. As a nephew of the jazz deities John and Alice Coltrane, Ellison has some pretty great stories (cf. just about any interview, which inevitably brings this connection up), and it's hard to imagine what it's like to get to play one of John Coltrane's saxophones. His music isn't really jazz, technically anyway, but he does make discernible connections between his family's jazz past and his own musical present (for instance his cousin Ravi Coltrane, a notable jazz artist in his own right, plays on the record as well). But the Coltrane I hear the most in this record is not John or Ravi, but Alice. After the death of her husband in 1967, Alice Coltrane began a solo career which would take the late saxophonist's later, free spiritual work into beautiful, exotic world-jazz territory. She played the harp and piano primarily, and her albums are suffused with her light, shimmering, almost hymnlike solos. I especially recommend Ptah, the El Daoud and Journey in Satchidananda, though she made a ton of records, and I have a lot more homework to do.

For comparison, here is the lovely "Blue Nile" from Ptah, the El Daoud (1970):

Artists like Flying Lotus and Four Tet (who has also recorded with a jazz great, the late Steve Reid) are showing what new forms emerge when the laptop is played with a jazz perspective. In this Flying Lotus track, "MmmHmm", I think one can hear a natural extension of Alice Coltrane's harp textures and rhythms, and I bet his dear departed aunt approves.

Flying Lotus, "MmmHmm":

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