The first unmistakable realization about the cosmic jazz of Szun Waves is a shared sonic alchemy rare to find. They too are acutely aware of the serendipitous nature of finding the right people to play with, as Luke Abbott repeats happily a few times during our Skype chat. Uniquely fresh sonic sensibility and a wider musical discourse unites them beyond their respectful individual differences, which would have been an obstacle for anyone else not having Sun Ra's 'space is the place' mantra rather deeply inscribed upon their sonic philosophies. Undoubtedly massive, as their individual talents are, this synth/sax&drums trio's musicianship expands and grows sharper and stronger when united by a shared quest, a mystical voyage into the uncharted constellations, which makes them a true supergroup.
Norwich-based electronic producer and musician Luke Abbott, master of the complexity/simplicity balance, sax virtuoso Jack Wyllie (Portico, Circle Traps) busy on the freshly ignited London jazz scene and Australian experimental drum poet, Laurence Pike (PVT, Triosk) have gone beyond geography and other mighty petty obstacles and in turn might have found the proverbial gold pot at the end of the rainbow with this project.
"Laurence got in touch with me, because he likes my second album and thought that we should make some music together and when we met up, I invited Jack along, as I thought it might be interesting to try with the three of us and it just went from there, really", Luke explains to me. What started as a loosely defined project and could have remained just one of the magical sessions captured at James Holden's Sacred Walls studio, is now growing to become one of the most interesting and immersive acts on the new cosmic jazz scene, with their cosmic mess around backed up with the digital programming and modular synth wizardry of the highest order, in a highly complex, expansive psychedelia.
It's an organically tied combo, blending one of the most exciting and promising, but still oddly fringe music going around lately, the new British jazz renaissance and quiet (vintage, analogue) synth revolution, while owing to the past, especially the spiritual jazz tradition, the minimalists, electronic pioneers, experimental psychedelia and new age music even. Surely, a new mindset is evident, at least to me, in forward reaching, visionary musical reasoning, while wisely recycling the past and building upon its lessons. It's the new utopian mindset is in the making, combining the best of old worlds, new age visionary optimism and post-modern experimental deconstruction, minus the 20th century's cul-de-sac trap. It's the sound of slowly beginning to decipher a new language of the future in a crucial, transitional moment when the old word is vanishing and the new one is still struggling to be born. And this 'not yet' edge makes it intriguingly exciting to listen.
The three of them swirl masterfully around each other in gorgeous bursts of pure musical imagination. The sounds expand in unpredictable bouts of minutely articulate psychedelia, like drops of tricolour ink being sprinkled upon the silky surface of the water and spreading quickly and deeply, using its peaceful reflective nature as a kind of psycho-spiritual Rorschach test in a musical form. The tight structure of Abbott's wizard of Oz digital programming holds it all together and leaves a lot of sacred sonic space opened up for conquering in a dazzling free-form instrumental journey, aptly titled New Hymn To Freedom. It is trio's most inspired recording to date, chasing after the state of ecstatic expanded awareness, as a freestyle tantric meditation of sorts. New Hymn To Freedom delights in the high joys of liberation, opening up layers and layers of understated majesties amidst the sea of freed ambient space, with the playing soaring under the premise of the ego taking the back seat, for this is a spiritual playground after all.
Newly signed to the amazing Leaf label, Szun Waves were done great justice, reaching more thirsty souls and ears. It's an interesting moment in Abbott's musical explorations too, as we find him discovering ever expanding and eclectic sound palette, more fluid in spirit and, dare I say, more yin? We found it's a good time to catch up with him, ahead of the New Hymn To Freedom tour, and he shared a few candid words with us.
DiS: There are obviously a lot of influences shaping the Szun Waves sound and the particular individual styles the three of you blend so well, but Alice Coltrane (I'm quietly playing in the background) seems like your true spiritual Godmother. Tell me about the impact her music and this whole spiritual jazz tradition has had on you in shaping the way you think about music. I don't know if you can recall the first time you heard it and the impressions?
Luke Abbott: I mean, I don't remember the actual first time hearing Alice Coltrane, but I can speak about the kind of influence it's had on me and thus as a group, I think. The ideals within her music we share in ours as well, so obvious when you listen to it, like the sense there's a genuine kind of urge to connect with something bigger, and so the freedom with which the people play and the kind of lack of ego that's present in the music. It seems like very natural expression, but at the same time, it feels like it's intended as the roots to something else and those principles I think we share. I don't think we're close to where she got with her music at all yet, but I think that the aspiration to reach for a similar path, at the very least, I think is quite genuine and also to allow there to be the freeness in the music that lets us play more as musicians.
Being in the moment?
Yeah, totally. To be kind of in tune with something bigger than ourselves in order that we might be in tune with each other better.
There is a sense of unspoiled musical thinking about this project that manifests in this, I would call it stream of consciousness playing that reaches an authentic state of mind in its freedom. It seems to me that in Szun Waves the three of you found an outlet you all needed but couldn't fully express in your previous music projects, and on the wider scale, I feel it mirrors this need for a spiritual outlet for the 21st-century humans. We still need a connection to something larger, while we can't help operating under a scientific paradigm and having this thoroughly Internet-defined hypertextual frame of mind. It seems to me as if you are trying to break away from that mindset and connect with something we've all lost touch in our culture a long time ago.
I can definitely relate to some of those ideas, I think that the urge to bring something very human to our practice resonates with me quite a lot, especially my personal musical background. I spent a lot of time in electronic music trying to, I suppose, break free from those..
Yeah, constraints in the kind of preconceived structures that electronic music often seems to have. There is always this kind of strict, kind of grid-like structure to electronic music and to the majority of dance music anyway, but also, there is a lack of playfulness. Electronic music can be quite serious a lot of the time and it's quite rare for electronic music to be free of structure and at the same time be very, very playful. It tends to go down the serious kind of sound straight-faced and it doesn't seem very fun. But the thing about spiritual jazz is that it's free of all of that, it allows you to play in this free of structure manner, but you can mess around and it becomes like a game between the three of you and it feels more joyful somehow. There's a lot of joy in playing and I think that comes across in listening to it.
Yes, it definitely felt in your music. Lately, we do see a lot of artists coming from this straightly technical and academic backgrounds turning to a more intuitive approach and the kind of playfulness you are talking about. And I think, in a wider sense, it's the most imperative artistic solution to this kind of crisis of imagination everybody is facing, if it's not too big a word to say, humanity. And I don't know if this is the time when we got to stop and look inwards and re-imagine the future. How is art an music important in freeing us internally for kind of imagining a new way forward, new possibilities? Can we say that this is what this New Hymn To Freedom is about?
That is kind of a really big idea you've just introduced. I mean, I think, there are certain things in that we aspire to. I don't know whether we're, I don't know how articulate our music can be as a descriptor for a new way forwards. It's quite an aspirational to think that music can be that important, but at the same time, I think music and art have generally always been like a really good playground for new ideas. I feel like the way to those new ideas is often just, kind of recontextualizing where you were already at in a paradigm that seems to have been forgotten. For me, placing my practice as an electronic instrument maker and electronic musician, trying to place that in a jazz context, so making it about performance, making it real time, working out ways that I can play with people playing traditional acoustic instruments, drums and saxophone.
Also working out the sounds that we have as a band and finding our own way by fumbling around and not really knowing what we are doing, but kind of discovering as we go. Those kinds of explorations, it does feel like we're trying to find a new sonic space to occupy and that desire to make something that feels fresh and new, I think that's always present in art, but feels slightly more urgent in times when the world seems like it needs some kind of change, which I think is true for everyone at the moment in a lot of different ways and you could say that is reflected in what we're doing.
You have been getting into improvisation. What attracts you to it and from your first-hand perspective, I would like to know, how is this new improv different from the old jazz way, the standard way?
Improvisation was my route into music into first place. I've always engaged in improvisation, even before I was releasing records and stuff, when I was still studying, my first interest was in free improvisation and improvised music. So it's been like a study of mine for like 15 years or something, or longer than that probably. And it hasn't always been able to come through the music that I make, cause there's a lot of other ideas I'm interested in as well, but the SW project comes from that improvisational starting point.
Is it jazz just because it uses free improvisation and features a saxophone or do you use those elements in a more post-jazz kind of way, for different purposes?
I suppose we only say that we're playing jazz cause that's the closest thing to what we're doing, but really the majority of jazz has nothing to do with it, really. But also, I think, the ideals of jazz, as I perceive them, are that it should be about pushing boundaries and being free of style and exploring new things and letting yourself be playful, but the reality is that the majority of jazz, historically and even now is stuck very squarely within its own form, and most of it is very unsurprising and I suppose I don't really think that we connect with the majority of that kind of thing. But the spirit of, what at least I hope jazz can be, I think is about pushing through and finding a new way of doing it, like a new nature, a new aspect of your own playing that comes naturally, but is different to anything that you've inherited. At the same time, you inherit so much through music, it takes a long time to work through those things and the history of music is always present in you, cause it's just an ongoing conversation, but the desire to explore beyond what you can imagine and tapping into a new area, I think that's kind of what jazz exists for in a way. It's one of the styles of music which is about expanding and going off into a future direction. Jazz has always had an element of futurism about it.
As you play, it seems like you just tune into this mystical space where the music happens and sort of channel it, with profound group alchemy the three of you share. To a listener, it seems so easy. Was it tricky to translate such complex musical vision into the reality of music making or does it all come so intuitively and naturally as it sounds? And how did you come about having this fully formed sound from the get-go?
It is completely just natural, we don' t kind of work at it, we just play and that's how it comes out. I think we're lucky to have found the mixture of sounds and people that we have, because I think that works really well as a trio. There's nothing about it which has been planned, really. The first album we made was the literally the first time we played together. We just recorded it without having any preconceived notion of what it was, what we were trying to do, it's just what happened. And then for the second album, we had a better idea of how to play together, but there was nothing written when we went into a studio. It only took three days recording to make the album, out of two sessions. It was literally just the case of trying to play and what we got is what we got. I wouldn't say it was easy, cause it's still hard work to push yourself to create, but it was the natural sound we got when the three of us play together.
I was especially impressed with your ability to play as to create these very complex individual themes, but to synchronize so beautifully and in such way that you never ever really get in each other's way. And when we listen to such music, especially a lot of jazz that is kind of discordant, there is always this clash of egos and people playing over each other and that never happens between the three of you. And this, kind of fair playing and respecting each other's space in the spirit of being true musicians and pals, seems quite spiritual to me. Was this why you called it sports jazz?
(laughing) Sports jazz, that's the joke I made when describing what my band plays to taxi drivers. I think we just have a lot of respect for each other as individuals and the desire for music to be clear. We want to hear each other while we're playing, we're listening to each other while we play, I think space is just a natural part of how we approach it. But I think we all want to find a way of doing less a lot of the time. Even though it gets quite busy, the music gets quite maximal, I think we all feel the most important thing is finding space, not just for each other, but just in the music as a whole. It always feels better when you're doing less, because there is the combined total of all of it, it always kind of breathes a bit more when as an individual you feel like you're having to do less.
Let me get back to this idea of music being a spiritual outlet and kind of expressing this need we all have to connect with something larger, that is absent in our culture, but we can't regress to some old mythologies and old states of mind. While there is no space left in our culture where we can express this need, I dare to say that music and arts, in general, might be the last resort of the sacred in our times. Would you agree?
I don't know. Things are sacred if you treat them as such and I think if you feel like something is important, then it can gather importance. Talking about it in a wider sense, I think there are lots of different ways in which different people are trying to find their own connection and I think that's probably always been true. I think there is a kind of beauty to the collective enjoyment of people playing music together and I think there's a real beauty to collective groups of people listening to music together, as well, across the world in lots of different cultures, in lots of different ways. And it's important that we continue to try and make music that people can connect with, especially in new ways, as the world changes so quickly and music and art must as well. It's important, I mean, but I don't think it's the last resort. I don't know what you mean by that.
Music has always been important and served a purpose that is both collective and individual at the same time, but I was thinking more in the line of this post new age mystical expression of connecting with the divine without the divinity and expressing those feelings in musical safe zone, without subscribing to any kind of mythology or agenda or religion, just having a free space to express those kinds of higher feelings.
That's true. I think that psychedelic and mystical are often quite close and the music is inadvertently psychedelic and always open for mystical experience. You know, there is always a political agenda in everything we do, but maybe there isn't necessarily particular ideology attached to what we do. It's, I suppose, a route into a mystical experience without having religion attached.
That's the beauty of it. It's completely free of any of those attachments and it makes it even more valuable. I see a lot of promise around this analogue, modular, vintage synth revival in new bringing a surge of new ideas onto a music scene. What has attracted you to work with the modular synth, why do you find it interesting and how is it different to create music in that way?
The modular system just allows me to have a lot of hands-on control over a certain number of things that I'm using, so It's kind of a fast way into interacting with the sound for me. Within Szun Waves it's very hands-on and it's important in improvised music to be able to get to things quickly and to change things and interact with them and I suppose the modular synth allows me to do that and have a lot of things to play with in front of me, so there is a lot of options with it.
It's more flexible.
Yes, it's more flexible, but also it's only flexible because of what is happening behind the scenes with it in the computer. I use a lot of MAX MSP programming to create the structural elements on which all of my parts are working and without that, it wouldn't really be as useful. Computer's kind of at least half of what is happening all the time and the modular synth is just the bunch of stuff to play with in front of me. I wouldn't really use one without the other for this project, it's kind of a hybrid machine between the software and the hardware.
Was it difficult making it work all together so well, the modular synth with the drum kit and the sax?
Obviously, there are kind of technical challenges to interrelate different sounds, but it was fun putting the sounds together.
So it's about the good chemistry between the trio that makes it all work so well?
Yes, I think we're very lucky to have found our group of people to make sounds with. We couldn't really replace any of the members and make it work the same way. It's down to the three of us, really. The real lucky thing is that we all want to make the same thing, so the things that we each do individually just naturally fit together really nicely. We're lucky.
New Hymn To Freedom is out now via the Leaf Label. For more information about Szun Waves, including forthcoming tour dates, please visit their official website.
Photo Credit: Mike Massaro