The Comet is Coming embody the collaborative spirit of jazz
Words: Anna Tehabsim
Photography: Vicky Grout & Jake Millers
The Comet is Coming are facing each other, eyes closed and hyperventilating. It’s the day before they set off on a tour that will stretch on until the end of the year, and this is their final rehearsal. We’re at Total Refreshment Centre, a music hub tucked behind a black door with minimal signage down a side road in Stoke Newington. The space is teeming with life, hosting studios and rehearsal rooms, and, until Hackney Council enforced a temporary closure notice in 2018, rowdy jamming sessions as a DIY music venue. In recent years, it’s acted as a beating heart of London’s playful jazz scene, in which the Comet is Coming are a formidable force.
The outfit’s three members, who go by the pseudonyms King Shabaka, Danalogue and Betamax, gather their thoughts amongst their set-up – scattered across a weathered persian rug is one saxophone, one drum kit, a rack of synths and, perched on tomorrow’s flight case, a Mac to record them – and lock into their shared meditation technique. A trusted pre-show ritual, it involves a mixture of deep breathing and controlled hyperventilation. As they pump out rapid breaths, the aim is to bring each member’s focus into the present, and kickstart the rush of energy needed to deliver their intensely physical live show.
“It feels like you’re going into battle,”Betamax reflects. “But that’s what the music requires, it’s what it deserves.”
“It puts everyone into a similar headspace,” ‘King’ Shabaka Hutchings continues. “Regardless of where we’re coming from, we all come into one unified space where it’s just about the music.”
It has powerful results. With Danalogue (Dan Leavers) on synths, Betamax (Max Hallett) on drums and Shabaka’s frenetic saxophone, they join forces to create a cataclysmic clash of sound that can be loosely described as cosmic electronic jazz. The trio first captured this far-out sound on their 2016 debut Channel the Spirits, a Mercury-nominated, Sun Ra-influenced trip. This March they released Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery, their first album on Impulse Records, the legendary jazz label home to John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders.
A present-day take on the spiritual jazz created by many of their heroes, it’s a product of the fusion of influences at the centre of today’s bustling British jazz scene, of which Shabaka is a staple. “I knew about Shabaka,” Max remembers, recalling his time in Soccer96, his first project with Dan which began in 2012. “We were going to his gigs, he was coming to see us play.”
As a prolific fixture of the scene, and a compulsive collaborator, Shabaka would often be in the crowd with his saxophone as Soccer96 whipped up a frenzy in basement bars across Dalston. On more than one occasion, he felt moved to join in. “It had a very open space,” Dan says of Soccer96’s sound. “The depths of the bass, pounding rhythms, and synthesizers creating this huge, psychedelic panorama.” With Shabaka’s raucous saxophone in the mix, which can play like a lead synth line, the spontaneous collaboration breathed new life into the project. “Suddenly you had this cutting humanity,” Dan says, “the voice piercing through.”
The three soon realised that this was something else entirely, and decided to dig deeper. In 2015, they got in the studio and started experimenting. During this time, they captured everything, pressing play on a reel-to-reel tape recorder and letting the sound unfurl. “When you hit record and you capture that first moment,” Dan says, “you get this the spark of raw intensity that comes out. It’s not all amazing, but when it is, it’s got this fire to it.” Recording onto cassette gives the music a ‘shimmer’, then they do the final mix and master on a Mac, where the tracks take on a new life during post-production. It’s often Dan chopping up and refining the cut, before they regroup to assess the aftermath: “Sometimes it takes the process of working on it to realise which tracks reveal themselves.”
As a group they’re concerned with unity, and the project is bound by a shared trust. Dan explains: “Often in jazz groups there’s someone who writes out the music and hands it to the players. Everyone expresses themselves but it’s the vision of your Miles Davis character or whoever it may be.”
But within the Comet, as Max relays: “No one really tells each other what to play, you bring your own thing, and it’s just about the chemistry of that.”
For Dan, the democratic nature of the band has a wider significance today: “It’s kind of an anarchist set up in the way that we have the freedom to do as we please but within that we’re all serving the group to the maximum of our ability. We’re starting to see as a society, the real dangers of a top-down hierarchical leadership system. The intensity and anger that’s sometimes present in our music is a reflection of how painful that is on a broader scale.”
With its themes of community, urgency and our place in the cosmos, the project has a collective message – but each member is hesitant to put it into words. “We’ve come into an age where everything is pretty much explicit,” Shabaka says. “Where we assume that we are capable of figuring out logistically, all there is to know in our world.” As Max notes: “it’s about having trust in the things you can’t grasp.” While this idea is the conceptual backbone behind Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery, it could also just as well capture their philosophy as a band. “We’re experimenting, trying things out, trying to feel our way through it,” says Max. “These things just appear. It’s collaborative creativity – it’s always surprising, always shifting.”
When recording, the trio trust in the music to take them, and then piece together the results. With hours and hours of material to sift through, how do they know when they’ve found a hit? “When we’re all looking around at each other as we’re listening back,” Dan answers. “I can still remember the look on Shabaka’s face when we listened back to Birth of Creation, we were just nodding our heads like, uuurgh. It’s an instinctive decision.”
During the final rehearsal at Total Refreshment Centre, the process follows a similar path. Once the breathing ritual has taken its course, when they finally unleash their bottled energy it feels like the room is vibrating. Shabaka takes a break to clean the reed of his saxophone, and it brings home Dan’s memory of it being the missing piece of the puzzle. As he taps back in, blowing with an exhausting frequency, he sends an electric energy across the room.
When they’re in the zone like this, there’s no stopping them. It’s only afterwards, as they take a breather and gather round Dan’s Mac to hear the results of the set they’ve just recorded, that they are able to fine tune the interaction between their parts, and find those moments of magic. The three of them huddle close to the speakers, glassy eyes drifting into the distance as they take it in. They pick apart the recording – the synths aren’t loud enough here, they’re out of time there. Then they lock eyes. They’ve found the fire: “that’s the rowdiest sound ever”.