March 2008

Heliocentrics: Astral Projection

The first few minutes of Out There (Now-Again), the debut LP from the Heliocentrics, prepare listeners for a trip akin to interstellar space travel: The bass rumbles the floor beneath your feet, a flight attendant’s soft voice comes over the intercom, and before you know it—liftoff. Only on this trip, the sampler-driven genres of nu-jazz and hip-hop are turned on their ear by a nine-piece band resulting in a record that orbits the cosmos somewhere between Sun Ra, John Coltrane and David Axelrod.

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Courtesy of Stones Throw Records

Heliocentrics

The London-based Heliocentrics are captained by drummer Malcolm Catto, a veteran of the U.K. jazz and funk scenes and more recently a collaborator of both DJ Shadow and American hip-hop MC and jazz drummer Madlib. “My father used to play piano with a band called the Gothic Jazz Band,” Catto explained via e-mail. “They played straight-up New Orleans jazz, and consequently I grew up in a pretty musical environment, with either boogie-woogie, blues, New Orleans R&B or jazz on the stereo. I one day heard Africa/Brass by Coltrane, which sounded timeless and still musically and rhythmically relevant compared to other jazz I had heard.”

Catto’s first experience on the skins was a trial by fire, gigging in a post-punk outfit with his older brother around the Stevenage area of London. “We played a few gigs until literally getting bottled offstage by skinheads who had taken offense at my bowl haircut and paisley shirt, a pretty harsh musical critique for any 15-year-old.” Catto went on to pay his funk and soul dues drumming with the Soul Destroyers, a throwback outfit with three future fellow Heliocentrics members: bassist Jake Ferguson, flutist and percussionist Jack Yglesias and guitarist Adrian Owusu.

“The Heliocentrics evolved out of the Soul Destroyers. We played late-’60s R&B/funk, complete with Hammond B3,” Catto explains. “With the Heliocentrics though, we now try to incorporate our collective influences together, which include the likes of Ennio Morricone, psychedelia, modal jazz, ethnic music, dub and avant-garde. And we try to jointly create something modern and representative of us in the here and now, rather than something formulaic and retro.”

Retro is one thing the Heliocentrics are not. In fact, Out There may be the most appropriate description of their sound. The opening cut, “Distant Star,” weaves an aggressive funk drumbeat and bassline with echo-laden dub feedback and reverberating strings. “Joyride,” “The American Empire” and “Sounds of the East” all boast a symphonic disarray in which bass and drums intertwine tightly, making way for cinematic string flourishes, blistering thumb piano and Middle Eastern melodies.

While the stylistic inspirations are vast and varied, the influence of Sun Ra is one of the most obvious, from the name of the group itself to standout cuts like “Sirius B,” “The Zero Hour” and “Falling to Earth,” in which screeching saxophones duel for supremacy and the resulting free groove sounds like a play date between the J.B.’s and Ra’s Arkestra. “The lack of regimented structures and arrangements we took from free jazz,” Catto says. “It was hard not to find something inspiring among Sun Ra’s huge output, as he covered so much musical ground.”

In addition to the core rhythm section, the Heliocentrics feature James Arben on clarinet and saxophones, Ray Carless on saxophones, Max Wiessenfeldt on vibes and Mike Burnham on synths, effects and a bevy of ominously voiced samples. “We try to be able to diversify as players so we can swap musical styles, like a good DJ will play different genres to keep it spicy,” says Catto. “We have added some different musicians into the band who have added their own musical identity to the general equation, allowing us to experiment and diversify our sound further.” One of the record’s strongest compositions is “Winter Song,” a bass-heavy exploration with a droning sitar and reverse guitar solos, all kept in check by Catto’s relentless, echo-rich drumming.

It is their spot-on replication of digital sounds that makes Out There so unique. Catto achieves fills on his simple jazz kit that you could swear came from a drum machine, and the grooves are so tight that it’s surprising that a band, not a computer, could stay in the pocket so long. Drums and bass satisfy the urge for the hip-hop head-bob, while extended solos and free improv work your jazz sensibilities. It’s this traditional, hard-grooving style, masked with spacey production techniques, that makes Out There an astral jazz trip worth taking.

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