Aaron Burnett and The Big Machine (w/ Esperanza Spalding) Take Ears To The Cosmos on ‘Jupiter Conjunct’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Jupiter Conjunct is saxophonist/composer Aaron Burnett & The Big Machine follow-up to 2019’s acclaimed Anomaly, this time moving into the extra-terrestrial as many jazz forbears such as Sun Ra, John and Alice Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, and Lonnie Liston Smith, among others have done. We do have modern-day purveyors too such as The Comet Is Coming. 

Burnett’s work focused on the solar system’s largest planet, its orbiting moons, and the merging of cosmic, all-connecting forces through sound. As this writer moved from the recent release, Who Are You? (covered here two weeks ago) from vibraphonist Joel Ross, a key member of The Big Machine, it felt at first as a continuation of Ross’s album until more listening revealed different instrumentation from Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, and Burnett’s tenor as opposed to the alto in Ross’s bandRounding out The Big Machine are Carlos Homs on the piano and Fender Rhodes electric piano, Nick Jozwiak on bass, and Kush Abadey on drums. They are not so much genre-defying as genre-expanding, a band that reflects its leader’s multiple influences with a foundation rooted in classical and jazz with elements of contemporary electronic and world music. 

Burnett, of course, owes much of his success to Esperanza Spalding, with whom he has toured and performed with in over 40 countries and was featured on her latest Grammy-winner12 Little Spells. Spalding is happy to return the favor here, lending her improvisational singularity to “Ganymede,” a tune that speaks directly to the idea that much of hip-hop is an evolution of conversations started by jazz. Scatting in unison with Burnett’s searching and complex lines on tenor, Spalding is an extension of Burnett’s horn, and his horn is an extension of her voice. Meanwhile, Jozwiak and especially Abadey, are the rhythmic tandem holding this explosive, intricate composition, together. Because there’s no such thing as too much Esperanza Spalding, the album closes with an alternate take on “Ganymede,” perhaps the tune that best synthesizes—from jazz to hip-hip to electronica—the album’s principal influences. 

“Ganymede” is just the first of four cuts named for Jupiter’s Galilean moons. Burnett has dedicated the second, “Callisto,” named for the gas giant’s outermost and second-largest moon, to Wayne Shorter. With a trap-inspired beat and fluid but deep harmonic interplay between Burnett and O’Farrill, “Callisto,” simultaneously evokes images of Southern hip-hop and film noir, the tune’s narrative quality underpinned by the emphatic sound of Jowziak’s bass. The next tune, “Io,” named for Jupiter’s innermost and most volcanically active moon, is, like its namesake, molten to the core. At just a shade under four minutes, this one burns hot and fast, showcasing an incendiary vibes solo from Joel Ross and a rhythm section that never loses the thread on Burnett’s seemingly limitless ideas.

The opening two tunes, “Color Durations” and “The Veil,” among the album’s most orchestral-sounding offerings, are cautiously eager, like space travelers leaving the cocoon of their ship and making that first venture out into an alien world. Meanwhile, by the time we come to “Ace of Swords,” the record’s sixth track, we’re at a much different part of the album’s narrative arc; a clear-headed confidence prevails on this medium-tempo groover, buoyed by an ethereal solo from Homs on the Fender Rhodes. “Ether” brings in electronic dance music influences, with recursive, almost hypnotic, riffs and rhythms. Straddling that line between composed and frenetic, this one apparently nods to the seemingly tenuous yet ultimately sturdy forces that somehow keep the universe from coming unglued. The animated drummer again plays with incredible precision at warp speeds, while Burnett and O’Farrill are like two planets with wide elliptical orbits around the same star. Sometimes they’re in close for tightly arranged pairs playing; other times they’re entities unto themselves, boldly freelancing. “Europa,” too, is inspired by the electronic dance music, perhaps owing to Burnett’s work with his group Sistine Criminals.
The solar system has always fascinated some of jazz’s most iconic names, certainly during the Space Age of the ‘60s and early ‘70s.  While like those forbears were termed by many “far out” or “too spacey” – meaning inaccessible, Burnett & The Big Machine contemporize these themes decades later, merging the influences of jazz, hip-hop, and electronica into a sound that’s designed to more broadly appeal. This isn’t what we’ve come to know as spiritual jazz in the vein of Coltrane or Sanders but a transcendent sound, nonetheless

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