Flying Lotus: Electronic Jazz

Jazz artists covering non-jazz tunes is nothing new – John Coltrane doing “My Favorite Things,” Wes Montgomery, Soulive, Brad Mehldau, and countless others covering the Beatles’ catalog, The Bad Plus covering Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” (and lots of other rock tunes on their early output), and on and on. Being a jazz artist doesn’t mean banishing all other genres from your ears. Jazz artists can take inspiration from wherever it comes – say, a songbird. So it shouldn’t be so surprising that jazz artists have made some inspired covers of sample-based tunes. One of the more inspired (and inspiring) sample-based artists of the last decade or so is Flying Lotus (né Steve Ellison). Since his debut album 1983 was released in 2006, sounding like something released in 2083, Flying Lotus has been making electronic music that is not easily classifiable. His music has a hip-hop aesthetic but rarely keeps any elements static throughout the song. His rhythmic experiments have been an inspiration to jazz artists, and his own music has moved from the beat-driven 1983 through Reset, Los Angeles, Grid + Pattern World, and countless remixes and side projects, to 2010’s Cosmogramma and 2012’s Until the Quiet Comes. These last two albums, in particular, have moved further away from the (relatively) straightforward drums on 1983 and maybe not coincidentally have spawned several jazz covers (and it’s probably worth mentioning here that Cosmogramma also features, among other guest artists, Ravi Coltrane, FlyLo’s cousin, on a few tracks). In my earlier columns, I’ve looked at tunes that are several decades old and continuing to evolve. The tunes I’ll look at here are just a few years old and were made using technology that didn’t exist when, say, Herbie Hancock was recording Thrust.

Cosmogramma’s “MmmHmm”, featuring Thundercat on the bass and vocals, had one of the most memorable melodies from that album. It’s also got a great, super-trippy video to go with it (see below). Starting with Thundercat’s light background vocals and chugging percussion, the tune adds some guitar and bass, floating above the drums. After a descending bassline at about 0:55, the song’s vocals start, coupled with some bloops and blips underneath all this. A synth that could have come out of the video game in the video here doubles the vocal line through this section. Around 1:50, there is an instrumental break (and the video launches into hyperspace), then the lyrics return around 2:30 or so. Just before 3:00, Thundercat’s bass lines are pretty intense, and these continue through the end of the tune. Super-catchy melody and Flying Lotus’ production has enough surprises to keep the forward momentum building throughout the tune without a prototypical kick-snare drum break anywhere in this.

Vijay Iyer’s trio with Stephan Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums has covered “MmmHmm” on their 2012 album Accelerando. This version starts with Iyer’s deep piano chords and Gilmore’s start-stop kick drum and cymbals. Around 0:30, Iyer plays the melody on piano, accompanied by a beautiful bowed bassline from Crump (handily taking on Thundercat’s basslines). At about 1:00, the drums pick up a steady rhythm and the song moves forward on the “MmmHmm” melody. Gilmore’s drums continue to build, particularly picking up around 1:30… Iyer takes a piano solo starting around 2:00 over the continued bowed bassline from Crump and Gilmore’s drums. A relatively understated piano solo from Iyer, while thoroughly exploring the “MmmHmm” chord patterns. By 3:00 or 3:10, Crump has started plucking his bass and the main theme of the tune has returned. Just before 4:00, the bowed bass is back as the trio breaks this tune down and brings it to a close. Beautiful playing from Iyer and Crump on this, and as always, this trio is amazing in the way they listen to and interact with each other to build something organically.

Paul Barton has put together an impressive one-man cover of “MmmHmm” using loop pedals. His version starts with his guitar to lay down the basic backing for this version. He brings in the vocals around 0:30, a good version of Thundercat’s vocals from the original. Around 1:00, Barton grabs his bass and takes on Thundercat’s basslines that are then looped over the guitar lines. Starting around 1:40, percussive loops are added to this and then the vocals come back just before 2:00. The song ends here with a delay pedal echo. Impressive work. (If you’re into this sort of loop pedal-enabled one-man cover of FlyLo, I’d very much recommend checking out BinkBeats’ version of “Getting There,” based on the original from FlyLo’s Until the Quiet Comes album.)

Flying Lotus’ fellow Brainfeeder, the late Austin Peralta, also covered “MmmHmm” live. In the version below, Peralta on the keys was joined by Justin Brown on drums and Tim Lefebvre on bass. This version starts very contemplative with Peralta’s Rhodes piano (with a sticky D key, it looks like) and some bass before the kick drum joins in at about 0:50. The melody is played just after 1:00, still with fairly minimal drums. Lefebvre’s bass is playing some of Thundercat’s lines behind Peralta’s Rhodes here. No real ornamentation to the basic melody from Flying Lotus’ original until about 2:30, when the trio moves into a Rhodes solo and some subtle funk bass. Brown’s drums move into a straightforward kick-kick-snare over some stuttering hi-hat while Peralta does his thing on the keys. They fall into a nice stuttery groove around 4:45, then bring things back down at about 5:00. Around 5:30, Peralta moves to a synth to play the “MmmHmm” melody, while still playing some chords on the Rhodes. Lefebvre’s burbling bass is really nice in this section, not overplaying it here. Back to the rhodes around 6:50 while Brown’s drums almost sound like a drum break from a drum-and-bass track. The song dissolves after some descending chords from Peralta’s Rhodes. This is a cool version of the tune with a fairly open middle section for Peralta to solo over. The trio moves through a number of different feels on this, from a straightforward cover of Flying Lotus’ tune to jazz-funk to electronic territory. (On a side note, Peralta’s trio also took on FlyLo’s ”DMT Song,” a joint composition with FlyLo, Peralta, and Thundercat, at this same show.)

At least one more tune from Cosmogramma has inspired a jazz cover. “Pickled!” finds Flying Lotus in a less mellow mood than “MmmHmm.” The tune starts with a hard drum break and some bass tones before Thundercat’s basslines join a synth pad and some high-pitched digital-sounding tones (your dog might not appreciate that part). The snares drop out around 0:45, and the percussion breakdown continues until about 1:00. The drum pattern is built back up from its component parts while Thundercat’s basslines fly and the synths swirl. The drum pattern keeps hinting at re-forming, but never entirely builds back up to the full pattern from the start of the tune, continually building and then dropping out. Just before 2:00 on this video, the tune ends with swirling synth chords, then there’s a little coda attached to the end of this.

Rafiq Bhatia has done a live version of “Pickled!” on his Strata EP. Bhatia on guitar is joined by Jeremy Viner on sax, Jackson Hill on bass, and Alex Ritz on drums. This version starts with the drum break from the original, joined by the guitars playing lines reminiscent of Thundercat’s basslines on the original. At just after 0:30, the drums drop out and there are some Indian-sounding hand drums in the background. Some electronically-treated drums around 1:00 as Viner’s sax takes a relaxed solo. The drums come back in hard around 1:50… this is super-ill in this section, just killing it in here… the sax solo rises to a climax around 2:30 or so and maintains the energy level before bringing things back down just before 3:00. It sounds like the band is on a loop from about 3:00 to 3:30, then they add a coda at the end similar to the one from the Flying Lotus original. High-energy, great playing from everyone on this. The sax-led middle section is must-hear stuff.

One more while we’re at it: Flying Lotus’ follow-up to Cosmogramma, Until the Quiet Comes, has also spawned a jazz cover in the form of “Putty Boy Strut.” And go figure, some more trippy visuals to go along with this one. The original starts with hand claps and some digital synth sounds (or maybe a chopped-up sample? It’s hard to say.) that are vaguely vocal. Around 0:25, another synth comes in and some kick drums and cymbals join. These two synth lines are combined around 0:50. This groove continues with some bass tones starting around 1:30 before Thundercat’s bass comes in full force. Around 2:00 there are some guitar sounds and what sounds like Thundercat’s bass in there. The song ends with strings and Rhodes chords. Nice tune, short and sweet.

BADBADNOTGOOD (Matt Tavares on keys, Chester Hansen on bass, and Alex Sowinski on drums) has taken on “Putty Boy Strut”, performing the tune live at a TEDx talk in Toronto with Leland Whitty on sax and Luan Phung on guitar. This version starts a little faster, with Leland Whitty’s sax playing the synth line from Flying Lotus’ original and a rim shot mimicking the hand claps from the original. The keyboard and guitar join at about 0:20, playing the second synth line (the one that starts around 0:25 in Flying Lotus’ original version), and as in the original version, the two lines (keyboard and sax here) then intertwine. The sax drops out around 1:10, but returns around 1:30 for a unison keyboard/sax line that leads back to the main “Putty Boy Strut” theme as the drums build up around 2:00, then drop out for some lightly strummed guitar chords that are joined in short order by the keys and a ride cymbal on every beat. This moves into a keyboard solo that picks up momentum, grooving along nicely around 3:10. This keyboard solo continues over a four-chord progression, emphasized by the sax, and building to a climax around 4:20 before all but the sax drops out to play the main “Putty Boy Strut” melody. The rim shot comes back in here, then the keyboard and guitar join back in to back the sax with the song’s four-chord progression. As with the original, this version ends with some pretty keyboard chords. The arrangement in this version is actually very close to the original, with the middle section opened up for Tavares’ keyboard solo. A great version of “Putty Boy Strut.” As a sidenote here, BBNG are probably the current industry leaders in jazz covers of Flying Lotus: see their version of “Camel” (the original is on the Los Angeles album).

Flying Lotus is certainly at the bleeding edge of what’s being done in electronic music today. As I mentioned at the start of this column, these songs (“MmmHmm,” “Pickled!” and “Putty Boy Strut”) are just a couple of years old, compared with the decades-old tunes that I’ve been looking at in this cover series. It will be interesting to see whether these tunes stay in rotation over the next few decades and continue to evolve in the same way that, say, Monk tunes have continued to grow over 50+ years. I’ll also mention here that while a number of jazz artists have taken on Flying Lotus tunes, he’s not the only electronic artist being covered by jazz artists (in addition to lots of jazz artists taking on hip-hop tunes: see the bottom of my column on Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew”). Aphex Twin and Prefuse 73 have gotten the jazz treatment; I’ve been unable to find jazz covers of some of the other electronic artists I’d have suspected might be covered in the jazz arena (Four Tet?), but would be happy to have some suggestions thrown my way. A few more electronically-inspired jazz covers:

I’ll be back to something a little closer to the jazz canon the next time around…