This week as NASA’s Kepler orbiting telescope probed deep-field space, wonders beyond the imaginings of most of us came into view. As it focussed on an inky gap between solar systems, gazed deep into an area invisible to earlier sky-gazers and previously lost in the vastness of space; a new mission. This week fresh data surprised the analysts as new images formed on their screens. Astronomers could barely believe their luck. Revealed were four planets circling M-Dwarfs, all of which bore apparent similarities to our own planet. They were near enough to their suns and with the right circumference to place them in the ‘habitable zone’; perhaps even capable of sustaining life. The fact that ‘Kepler 186f’ is in the Cygnus Constellation nearly 500 light years away has not dented enthusiasm. Kepler 186f is now firmly embedded in the human consciousness. Like the astronomers at SETI we watch, ponder and hope. In my world, this is the intersection where dreams, the cosmos and improvised music collide.
If you know where to look you will find an asteroid named ‘janeirabloom’. This is significant because Jane Ira Bloom is an American Jazz musician. This fine saxophonist was the first musician commissioned by NASA and her composition ‘Most Distant Galaxy’ is forever associated with of the space programme. I like improvising musicians who gaze in wonder at the stars. I don’t mean musicians who occasionally play ‘Fly me to the Moon’ or ‘Star Dust’, but those who incorporate the wonders of the of the cosmos into their improvising. Jane Ira Bloom evidently visualises deep space when improvising.
The most obvious of these star gazers is Sun Ra. Born Herman Blount, he soon abandoned his earthly name to become Sun Ra. Anyone who has followed his brave sonic journey realises that his persona and that of the Arkestra is not a mere gimmick. There is a philosophy and a real social conscience behind the image. Devotees and band members stay the course. Ra has long departed this world, but the Arkestra is still voyaging with the astonishing John Gilmore at the helm. The older vinyl albums are now widely sought after, as the cover art was sometimes hand painted by the band members. Many of the covers are similar to the Hubble images.
Trumpeter Eddie Henderson was a late discovery for me, perhaps because his earlier cosmic funk material was unavailable for a while. With the re-release of his brilliant Fusion Jazz/Funk album ‘Sunburst’ and the ‘Heritage vol 1,2 Capricorn Years’ we have a treasure trove. I am deeply impressed with Henderson’s work and his recent albums like ‘So What’, are tasty-good as well. ‘Sunburst’ was released on the Blue Note label in 1975 (re-released by Japanese Blue Note recently). Two albums by Bennie Maupin ‘Moonbeams & Slow Traffic to the Right’ were released around the same time. The 70’s was the golden age of Cosmic Jazz/Funk and the utilization of increasingly sophisticated analogue synthesizers is a feature of these albums. These out of production analogue instruments have become highly sought after (Mini-Moog, Prophet, Oberheim, ARP Odyssey etc).
Benny Maupin is one of my favourite musicians. His multi-reeds & winds playing, innovative arrangements and memorable compositions reveal a clarity of purpose. Whether it’s his early work with Lee Morgan ‘Live at the lighthouse’, with Miles on ‘Bitches Brew’ or on any of his own albums like ‘The Jewel in the Lotus’, ‘Headhunters (Survival of the fittest)’; there is no-one quite like him. He also appeared on many Eddie Henderson albums during the 70’s. The personnel on these seminal Cosmic Funk albums are all important musicians.
A breakdown of the personnel and the serious kit involved: ‘Sunburst‘ (Blue Note) Eddie Henderson (trumpet, flugal, cornet), Julian Priester (trombone), Bennie Maupin (tenor sax, saxophones, bass clarinet), George Duke (Rhodes, clavinet,synths), Alphonso Johnson (electric bass), Harvey Mason (drums) Bobby Hutchinson (marimba), Buster Williams (bass-6), Billy Hart (drums-6). On ‘Slow traffic to the right‘ (Vocalion) are: Bennie Maupin (soprano & tenor sax, saxello, piccolo, flute/alto flute, bass clarinet, Oberheim polyphonic synthesizer, Eu synthesizer, vocals), Patrice Rushen (acoustic piano, Rhodes, e-piano, clavinet) Patrick Gleeson (Oberheim & E-Mu polyphonic syhthesizers), Onje Allan Gumbs (Electric piano, Fender Rhodes), Ralphe Armstrong (Gibson G3 bass guitar), James Levi (drums), Eddie Henderson (trumpet, flugal), Blackbird McNight (guitar), Craig Kilby (trombone, Nathan Rubin (concertmaster, strings). On ‘Moonscapes’ Maupin added new synths a glockenspiel and more personnel. This was the space age manifesting in improvised music.
History tells us that the invention of new instruments is extremely rare. The saxophone faced enormous difficulties in gaining recognition and its inventor even suffered assassination attempts from conventional instrument makers. Against that background the swift acceptance of the synthesiser appears surprising, but when considered in the context of the times there are compelling explanations.
The late 60’s and 70’s was the era of the space age and everyone with a radio, tuned into the beeps of Sputnik when it passed overhead. On mass we became enamoured with electronically generated sound. It was the code for modernity. Boys of the 50’s and 60’s all listened to short-wave radio; often in the hope of hearing cold war spies sending morse code. What we actually heard were the eerie sounds of atmospheric static and beeps from space. The new sounds of an exciting and limitless world.
As a multiplicity of signals bounced around the earth and reports from radio-telescopes became commonplace, we gradually associated those electronic sounds with the signals from deep space. The arrival of the psychedelic era picked up on this and from then on synthesized sound was a fait-accompli. Pink Floyd not withstanding, Eddie Henderson and Benny Maupin captured this era like few others. The earthy sounds of black urban funk were deftly fused with out-Jazz experimental music and the new instruments were the booster rockets.
When the mood takes me, late at night, I check out the NASA or European Space Agency web pages or watch compilations on You Tube of the newest images beamed in from deep or near space. I travel with voyagers 1 & 11, marvelling that their analogue signals still reach us despite the odds. Settling in, I cut the sound of the You Tube clips and as the pictures flash by, each more fantastical than the last, I put Eddie Henderson and Bennie Maupin on my stereo. For an hour I am there, a space voyager.
This post is dedicated to the out-musicians and the astronomers who explore new worlds. To Bob Moog who created new sounds, to Carl Sagan who reminded us that ‘we are star-stuff, billion year old carbon’ and to my son Aish, a computer scientist who manages a machine learning team in Silicon Valley.