On The Gratitude Principle, the Cosmic Range strike an essential balance between variation, steadiness, mood-building, and esoteric experimentation.
Yes, and . . .
It’s the golden rule of improvisation. Never leave your partner(s) scrambling in the lurch, struggling with how to advance the plot. Never close a scene off, take it too far too fast, or off into the weeds. Whether the scene works or not, advance together or fail together. It’s a rule that stresses the importance of both collaboration and creation in equal measure.
When it comes to free-form jazz, the same rules apply. Listening to the Cosmic Range is hearing this improvisational methodology upheld and practised in its most elemental form. Each member’s respective skillset is matched only by the band’s seemingly effortless ability to work as a cohesive entity; their respective chops are entirely malleable to the shifting temperament of the music. The individual has the flexibility to wander off, to advance the drama in ways they deem fit, because the collective intuitively knows how to react to the changes and steady the ship. Communicate, collaborate, create — yes, and.
It’s been a busy few years for the Range and its members. Since recording their stellar debut New Latitudes in two days back in late 2015, there have been excellent solo records, side projects, and perhaps most notably, a stint as the world’s greatest backing band on US Girls’s acclaimed 2018 record In a Poem Unlimited. The sessions for that record took place around the same time New Latitudes came out back in October of 2016. And to cap off an impressive, creatively fruitful run of sessions, they also managed to churn out another record’s worth of music during that time frame as well. The resulting record, The Gratitude Principle, is out today.
Sonically, The Gratitude Principle’s palette resembles that of the Range’s debut: hazy, spaced-out, and darkly ambient. Free-form psych-jazz melodies ebb and flow over krauty, funky, hypnotic rhythms. The performances are strategically captured in a way that feels raw and holistic, but also nuanced and considered. Each member gets their due and nobody is lost in the frenetic shuffle. Producer Jeff McMurrich (who worked on New Latitudes and In a Poem Unlimited) gives the band ample room to explore their compositions and flesh out ideas. These recordings feel toiled over, but the listener also never loses sight of the fact that this is a band playing in a room, feeding off of each other in real time. All of it recalls Miles Davis’s mind-bending trio of live records: Agharta (1975), Pangaea (1976) and Dark Magus (1977). Those performances, so artfully captured by Teo Macero, manage to pull you directly into the band’s creative space, to the point where you can feel a second-hand thrill of spontaneous creation.
As they did with New Latitudes, the Range put on a clinic in how to develop and expand upon simple themes and seeds of ideas. They also strike an essential balance between variation, steadiness, mood-building, and esoteric experimentation. “Palms to Heaven”, “Breathing Water”, and “The Observers” vary immensely from one another, but each track methodically builds outward from foundational themes that stay consistent throughout. This consistency is what makes the eventual solos and the flourishes work so well. The rhythm section of Kieran Adams on the drums and Brandon Valdivia on congas and percussion deserve a lot of credit here. They provide a stable foundation for most of these songs while also creating mesmerizing percussive lines that both furiously clash and dance in lockstep. The percussion becomes so relentless on “The Observers” that you almost forget it’s there. That is until your ear picks it up again and you marvel at the complexity and the endurance.
Amidst all the collaborative musicianship are standout moments of individual skill. Isla Craig’s flute on “Breathing Water” is as hauntingly beautiful as her vocal run on “Palms to Heaven”. Dunn’s solo on “The Observers” is, for better or for worse, one of the most memorable moments on the record. Andy Haas’s sax steals the show whenever it rears its head, and his work on the title track is some of his finest to date.
The Gratitude Principle is the sound of a group operating at full artistic capacity as collaborators and improvisers. If the close proximity of the aforementioned sessions is indicative of anything, it’s that the creative juices were flowing during that time period and the Range were adamant to contain, refine, and capture them as they were spilling out. You get the sense that no one in the band was interested in waiting around too long to passively refine and tinker with the thing. After all, inspiration is fickle and you have to strike when the iron’s hot. Well, strike they did.
To me, the most impressive aspect of The Gratitude Principle — and it’s really only something that became apparent after repeated listens — is how it so completely draws you into the session. You can feel the respective members settling into the songs, hearing certain variations, reacting to those variations, and revelling in the thrill of something becoming something else. It’s electric. And at a time when industry success increasingly depends on an artist’s ability to adhere to rigid structures, sounds, and algorithms, The Gratitude Principle stands as an ode to the thrill of discovery when the script is all but abandoned.