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When the Comet Came to Philly

NASA recently changed the course of a distant asteroid by firing a refrigerator-sized metal object at it. Thankfully, they made no such attempts at comet deterrence, because on an unassuming Wednesday night in late October, The Comet came and landed at Underground Arts in Philly. Massive, joyous sonic pandemonium came in tow.

The Comet is Coming, the actual name of the band who inspired the forced current events reference above, is a genre-bending three-piece from the red-hot London jazz scene. The big name of the trio is Shabaka Hutchings, a thirty-eight-year-old saxophone player who in a lot of ways is probably second only to Kamasi Washington in terms of profile in the jazz renaissance that’s been going on for the past decade or so. Shabaka plays with a visceral, at times almost primitive, style that makes him a bit divisive among jazz listeners, but his dynamic contributions have been a big part of expanding the genre’s appeal to younger and more diverse audiences. This is in part because he's really good at what he does and in part because his creative restlessness has led him to form no less than three distinct bands that he shuffles between, all with a different perspective and composition.

In this way, he reminds me a bit of Les Claypool, the virtuoso bassist best known for fronting the alternative funk-metal band Primus, around the turn of the century. Clearly burnt out on being in Primus, whose last two albums in the ‘90s sorely lacked inspiration, Claypool set out to challenge and re-engage himself, finding an ideal outlet in the jam scene. Before long he was playing in bands with everyone from Trey Anastaio from Phish and Stewart Copeland, drummer for The Police, to Bernie Worrell from Parliament-Funkadelic and Buckethead, the seven-foot masked guitar shredding enigma, and he had clearly regained his muse, if not multiple muses. Shabaka, similarly, plays with a trio of South African musicians in Shabaka and the Ancestors, a tuba player and two drummers in Sons of Kemet, and, of course, The Comet is Coming.

There’s no mistaking The Comet is Coming with anything else our man is involved in because this, more than anything else he’s produced, is jazz right out on the edge (of the genre? of spacetime?). Here, his collaborators are the devastatingly gifted drummer Max “Betamax” Hallet and, most distinctly, Dan “Danalogue” Leavers, a wildly creative synth/key player. That electronic element probably doesn’t do much to win over jazz aficionados already cynical about Shabaka projects, but it gives the band a unique sound and dynamic that a) helps them reach people who find traditional jazz intimidating/boring and b) is catnip to my ears.

There were times at the concert when I thought to myself, “This absolutely feels more like a rave than a jazz show,” and others where that was flipped. And there was plenty of time where I wasn’t thinking about those kind of distinctions at all, happy instead to just be taken by the psychedelic space-apocalypse music blasting out of the speakers and note how interesting it was to witness a saxophonist and synth player engaging in extended improvisation together.

The show opened with a set from the interestingly named Salami Rose Joe Louis, who it turns out is a totally solo artist who sounds like she takes her vocal influences from Billy Holiday and Norah Jones and plays synthesizers, usually to create mellow soundscapes with some occasional beeps and boops. She got somewhere between forty and fifty minutes onstage and thankfully was pretty good—I thought she’d maybe overstayed her welcome with her last two songs, but that could easily just have been a case of my anticipation for the headliners reaching a fever pitch. In any case, she was a clever choice of opener for a few reasons—for one, her personal, delicate sound didn’t risk burning out the audience for what promised to be a full-throttle headlining set. But what struck me as the neat thing about her in relation to The Comet is Coming is that she, too, offered a fusion of jazz and electronic music. It just happened to approach that combination with a completely different palette—where the night’s main event traded in throbbing, full-body instrumental electro-jazz, Salami paired vocal jazz stylings with gentle beds of synthesizer (plus a surprise harmonica solo mid-set). She went over well, judging both from the solid ovations she received and from the attention her part of the merch table seemed to get.

The Comet is Coming were everything somebody familiar with their music would expect/hope, with each member fitting perfectly into a well-worn archetype. This is often the case with power trios, with each member standing out so much for their contributions and personalities in part because there are fewer other elements to distract from them. Shabaka, as essentially the only member who consistently plays in a lead capacity, was the stage’s rockstar, cutting a borderline superheroic figure with his sleeveless shirt revealing toned arms and the nature of his instrument requiring so much clear physical exertion and focus. Danalogue, by contrast, played half the show looking like some cinematic vision of a basement-lurking darkwebber. He took the stage with a pulled-up hoodie and dark sunglasses, leaning in and throbbing over his multiple synthesizers like the villainous Unabomber to Shabaka’s action hero. And Betamax…well, drummers are drummers, right? With red John Lennon glasses and hearty facial hair, he worked his busy magic literally in the background, keeping the music on course but also driving his bandmates to fits of explosive inspiration. When he took his one extended drum solo of the night towards the show’s back end, it contained none of the tedium associated with the act but instead served as a revelation of the guy’s mastery of form, exploratory and stomping in equal measures.

I listen to plenty of bands that take drum solos, but this was hands down one of the most engaging and impressive I’ve seen from a single drummer, and when he started to transition back into the final full-band stretch of the night and was rejoined first by Danalogue and then Shabaka, it was one of the most dizzyingly joyous moments of the night.

With three albums and a run of generous companion EPs under their belts, the band had a wealth of quality material to choose from, to the audience’s benefit. This year’s Hyper-Dimensional Expansion Beam might be their best to date, offering eleven reasonably concise sci-fi jazz songs in a rock-leaning format, and it was well represented as you’d expect. It speaks to the album’s strength and the band’s confidence in it that new stuff dominated the first, main encore that came out of the aforementioned drum solo. I had no complaints, because we seemed to agree on the three best songs H-DEB has to offer—“Pyramids”, possibly the rave-iest song from the album, “Atomic Wave Dance”, which sounds like the song you’d hear progressively swelling in intensity in the background of a club scene in a Bladerunner-esque future noir movie, and “Angel of Darkness”, which closed out the main encore and transitioned from a menacing bed of composite synth and sax noise into a leviathan, Earth-splitting rock groove.

One other show of faith in the strength of their overall catalog and new material, a minor gamble that worked like a charm and got me giddily excited about the possibilities for the rest of the show, was the band’s choice to launch into what I consider their definitive song, 2019’s “Summon the Fire”, as the third proper song of the night when it could have easily brought down the house as a closer. Over a chugging synth-drum combo, Shabaka laid down a muscular, oddly catchy lead, perfectly delivering on the title command as it pushed to frenzied heights. The album version somehow accomplishes this in under four minutes, but as the centerpiece for the show’s first half, the band stretched their raging development of it for well longer before letting it break down into dissonant sax noise that, as on the album, built back up into the lurching Hell-crunch of “Blood of the Past.”

A fair bit later, when Shabaka left the stage for a couple of minutes, leaving his bandmates to handle an extended outro, I assessed the room. On the stage, Danalogue was shedding his hoodie (though not the shades) and, as the only member of the band who really talked to or interacted with the crowd, spinning it over his head to rally the crowd for the pending final stretch. The audience, which I had counted as roughly thirty people shortly after I arrived at the halfway point between door time and show time, had swelled to an easy seventy. It was a noticeably diverse crowd across a range of categories and defied stereotypes about who goes to shows like this. Nearly half of the audience was women, including a fair few who were there on their own or not as part of a couple, at least a third of the crowd was black, and ages ranged from barely drinking age to at least a handful of people hovering around sixty. Next to me at that moment, in fact, was a four-foot-tall middle aged woman with a thick head of short, shaggy white hair who was standing in place with her eyes closed throbbing intently to the music. The Comet is Coming often sounds like some kind of sonic annihilation wave beaming in from the outer edges of space, something that their name seems to openly acknowledge. But by ignoring genre boundaries and playing what to me is some of the most exciting, cutting-edge music around, they maintain a fanbase across demographics and deliver exhilarating, utopian concert experiences that feel like celebrations of the possibilities of sound.

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