[6 November 2007]
The jazz experimental outfit, The Heliocentrics, dares to try the new astral sound but still lands a debut grounded in grooves. Where their inspiration Sun-Ra may be an acquired taste even among jazz heads, the band’s use of tribal hip-hop beats and splashes of funk makes Out There infectious. Their deft cinematic touches, sci-fi samples and a willingness to use silence for spacing, allows the band to take the journey to the planets of psychedelic, ethnic and avant-garde without sounding pretentious or fragmented. Much of this is likely due to the deft touch with which Stone Throw Record manager Egon, who in addition to working with label favorites, Madlib and J. Dilla, oversees the label’s more obscure imprint, Now-Again. Egon’s collaboration with the eight-piece’s ringleader Malcolm Catto has been four years in the making, so unsurprisingly, the 18 songs, including additional interludes, clock in at more than an hour. There are times when things start to get a touch dragged out, but the album quickly changes pace thanks to Malcolm Catto’s drumming.
Fans of Yesterday’s New Quintet who always wished Madlib to push it a few notches funkier will swoon from the first twenty seconds of the album’s opener, “Distant Star”. Catto, who has been sampled by Yesterday’s New Quintet and Madlib, brings immediacy to the song, which is enhanced by Jake Ferguson’s bass guitar. A touch of classic DJ Shadow, who Catto and the band worked with on the Bay Area’s turntabalist’s last album, can be heard on “Once Upon a Time”. This is a piece that proves that the flute is nothing to be laughed at, especially with a trip-hop beat behind it. The appreciation for David Axlerod comes through most clearly in “The Zero Hour” with its haunting strings and “Twilight Zone” like vocal sample. It has a film noir feel that jumps from the work of Bernard Hermann to something more of the Brian Eno variety. Catto really lets himself go on the pulsating “Joyride” that effortlessly interweaves the crying of the sitar, only to cut it short and allow the drums to take the show and then release the sitar again.
One of the major criticisms of the avant-garde jazz or astral sound is that it fades in the background eventually. Not with The Heliocentrics. Their twists, stops and speed-ups demand the ears’ attention. This impeccable timing is best heard on “Age of the Sun” where piano, drum, bass and saxophone all come together tightly to create a danceable jazzy number. The remix of Nico’s “Winter Song” requires a double take and not just because of the odd move to include a torch song into an astral jazz odyssey. But it works. The original’s signature flute melody is taken added expanded to create a forceful groove that still retains the original’s airy tone. In a similar way, The Heliocentrics takes Catto’s drumming and expand them into something more textured, and even more importantly, something indebted to the past but on its own plane.