The Gratitude Principle – The Cosmic Range
The Cosmic Range are a jazz super-group from Toronto, Canada. Last year they were the studio band for In a Poem Unlimited, the excellent sixth album by U.S. Girls and one of 2018’s finest. The hip-hop-indebted off-beat pop they played there was significantly off-brand for the octet, and on The Gratitude Principlethey return to the cosmic free-jazz of their debut (2016’s New Latitudes), channelling Alice Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Mulatu Astatke in equal measure. It’s a hit-and-miss affair that travels to the Easts Far, Middle, and African.
Opener ‘Palms To Heaven’ has a squalling intro that acts as an effective disclaimer – warning: free jazz ahead. But that comes later, as first they lock into an Ethio-jazz groove led by overdriven organ and skittering guitar, which scratches patterns in the glossy surfaces of vibraphone and the wordless singing of Isla Craig. It’s a heady confluence of Middle Eastern microtones, Ethio textures and psychedelic improv – but the bass groove that anchors the track isn’t quite strong enough to warrant being looped for nine-and-a-half minutes, and the band can’t seem to decide whether they want to be hypnagogic or stimulating.
That’s really the story of half the album – impressive, exotic, but with no real success on an emotional or atmospheric level. Compared to contemporaries like Kamasi Washington, or even London’s own Sons of Kemet or Joe Armon-Jones, The Cosmic Range struggle to find melodies and grooves that make you sit up and listen closely, hooks that make good on the promise of their name and reel you in. Often the band bamboozle rather than beguile, the soloists taking their chances to draw sonic scribbles rather than truly dazzle. ‘Eyes for Rivers’ is three-and-a-half minutes of such noises, reminiscent of Miles Davis’ electric period but without the fundamental components of restraint and patience.
There are some considerable highs however – on ‘Breathing Water’, ‘The Observers’ and ‘The Gratitude Principle’, their healthy disdain for boundaries, whether they be between cultures, genres, or acoustic and electric instruments, leads them to something transcendent. ‘Breathing Water’ pairs far-Eastern woodwind and Afro-Latin hand percussion with sampled handclaps and cowbells smothered in digital echo. It’s more than an interesting combination of ideas and sounds though, here the parts interlock beautifully – the drums stuck in a ruminative rhythm, the woodwind solo contemplative and conversational, the electronic elements hinting at something other-worldly. The band pass a gorgeously delicate refrain around the instruments old and new, as if in a kind of ritual.
‘The Observers’ sounds like it might favour squawks and squiggles over real melodies until a slightly-detuned Ethio-style horn section refrain gets it back on track, ushering in a busy piece that faithfully embodies styles from across the globe, and blurs the acoustic and the electronic. There’s still perhaps a sense that the band try to do too many different things at once to really create something focussed and immersive, but the track creates an irresistible magnetism by constantly sounding on the brink of collapse. Closer ‘The Gratitude Principle’ is louche and loungey, and with an untreated saxophone solo, walking bass, and classic jazz drum beats, its easily the most traditional track. Of course, there’s still adulterants in the mix: congas, lashings of wah-wah guitar, a meandering ewi solo. It impressively scales itself down in the middle, leaving space for a tactile and restrained percussion solo before steadily crescendoing with Manzarek-style organ, soaring brass, and those wordless, ethereal vocals again.
This is an album that seems to actively resist crossover potential – and respect to The Cosmic Range for wanting to embody their free jazz roots after dipping into a different world, albeit very successfully, with U.S. Girls. It is unfalteringly interesting, full of tasteful combinations of disparate timbres and textures, and with a heartening spirit of adventure. But sometimes you get the sense that The Cosmic Range see fulfilling these pragmatic elements of their songcraft as tantamount to doing the whole job, without reflecting upon these tracks sometimes being less than the sum of their intriguing parts.