Back to the lab

Back to the lab: Los Angeles and the sounds of the future

On the west coast of America there’s recently been a quiet yet profound revolution in music. A new jazz movement of startlingly original sounds; zero tolerance for ‘retro’ and the total embrace of what philosophers call ‘futurality’. Suddenly, we have a music which – though it utilises the ‘recycling’ culture of sound sampling along with many other ways of generating sound – succeeds in cutting its ties with the past and begins to outline the shape of our future.

How did this happen? Freed from generic constraints they were too young to care about, a new generation of young jazz players spent their formative years earning a crust playing jazz and hip-hop gigs in about equal measure. As a result, the purist attitude that has so often pervaded jazz culture became an irrelevance. The brash chaos, DIY attitude and ‘use anything’ freedom of hip-hop liberated them from dour tradition.

And so, these young musicians re-discovered what Miles Davis always used to say, but which everyone, for decades, seemed to have forgotten: Jazz doesn’t want to be ‘pure’. Jazz wants to be wild and creative. Jazz wants to be a laboratory of ideas: a psychedelic science lab in which the world’s most beautiful and imaginative experiments are conducted.

The result? The Los Angeles jazz scene of 2018, and some of the most brain-meltingly exciting music being made anywhere in the world today.

This movement is centred around an L.A. musical collective, a loose-knit group of like-minded individuals who refer to themselves as ‘The West Coast Get Down’. Multi-instrumentalist/producer Terrace Martin and upright bass-player Miles Mosley have long been at the centre of this scene, but it was the involvement of most of its members in acclaimed rapper Kendrick Lamar’s milestone album To Pimp A Butterfly, which first put these musicians in front of a global audience.

Lamar, himself pushing admirably at the artistic boundaries of hip-hop, embraced these west-coast jazz players, who in turn helped him create what might be rap music’s greatest album to date. Take saxophonist Kamasi Washington, who on his acclaimed album The Epic combines lush big band and choral textures with the wildest sax-playing imaginable. Or bass player Thundercat, whose album Drunk won Radio 6 Music’s 2017 Album of the Year Award, effortlessly redefining soul and jazz with soft-focus, angular melodies soaring high over some of the most fluid, bubbling funk basslines ever played. 

And, crucially, the scene’s most mercurial star: Flying Lotus (A.K.A Steven Ellison). Fly-Lo, as he is known, creates an entirely new kind of music: floating futuristic soundscapes with gritty electronic beats fused to all manner of impressionistic jazzy inflections. This is electronica married to jazz’s original spirit of wild improvisation; sonic dreamscapes and musical meditations that feel uncannily like slipping between worlds. It is not unusual to get to the end of a Flying Lotus



album and honestly wonder if you’ve just been dreaming.

In Flying Lotus’ music, jazz drums and programmed beats slip and slide across one another until it’s hard to tell the difference; piano chords jitter through cavernous electronic effects; multiple rhythmic styles, slightly at odds, stack up against one another and collide in a constant stream of hybrid ideas. The argument between ‘real’ instruments versus ‘synthetic’ sounds here reaches its end-point and disappears. Human instrumentalists engage in precise mathematical patterns while the drum machines sound like they’re engaged in an orgy of improvisation. Opposites merge. Nothing is as it once was. 

This is a hugely relevant concept in 2018. In a culture where at least half the contenders for your next Netflix box-set binge are at least partly about ‘artificial intelligence’ (fictional visions of what may happen when humans begin to co-exist with intelligent, humanoid computers),  the question of what constitutes ‘real’ in the digital age, really is the perfect subject to find its sonic metaphors within the textures of a totally new music.

Flying Lotus is also the Grand-Nephew of Alice and John Coltrane, so it’s reasonable to assume he is immersed in the history and knowledge of Jazz’s greatest accomplishments. There is no question that both members of that legendary Coltrane couple considered musical aspirations to be synonymous with spiritual ones. Theirs was a self-consciously ‘cosmic’ journey through sound and improvisation, and while one can easily dismiss such talk as 1960s’ babble, it was John Coltrane’s obsession with technical ideas about infinity in music that led him to develop The Coltrane Changes“,  a harmonic innovation that is respected to this day by musicians the world over as an important sub-section of music theory.

It’s impossible to resist the impression that Fly-Lo’s heritage leads him to a similarly profound engagement with the deep ideas that underlie his music, and the very substance of sound itself. His breakthrough album, 2008’s  Los Angeles laid the beginnings of the template: he encoded his home city’s landscape into a pure sound in which drum-machine beats, glitchy synths and off-kilter percussion conjured up a vision of a future in which human and machine share the future mega-city in a weird-yet-funky kind of harmony.

Next came 2010’s Cosmogramma, a fully-formed Afro-Futurist adventure, featuring guest vocal contributions from Laura Darlington and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke (alongside a nod to Ellison’s family heritage in the form of Ravi Coltrane on Tenor sax). This album brought Fly-Lo a huge audience with its innovative yet seemingly effortless redefinition of the ways in which elements of jazz and electronic music can be hybridised, can merge and melt into one another.

2012’s  Until the Quiet Comes took his sonic journey into more introspective, dream-like textures; then in 2014 came the extraordinary You’re Dead album: an epic, mind-expanding nu-jazz record, some tracks of which feature very little electronics at all, 

with jazz legend Herbie Hancock guesting on two tracks of sublime avant-improvisation; elsewhere, Dead Man’s Tetris spreads the languid voice of Snoop Dog over an electro track of patched-together retro video game sounds, while more meditative tracks like Your Potential/The Beyond and Coronus, the Terminator come off like a kind of new and heavenly gospel music for the digital age. 

None of these, though, can overshadow You’re Dead’s standout moment, the Kendrick Lamar collaboration Never Catch Me

which, with its shifting, clattering beats, sweet-as-honey piano sample and Lamar’s genius-as-usual rapping, sounds for all the world like a lesson to absolutely everybody on what music is bloody-well meant to be doing in the second decade of the 21st century.

Once upon a time, jazz was perhaps the most energetically experimental art form in the world. Then, it got a little tired, and instead of perpetually looking forward, its performers began harking backwards, emphasising the music’s history rather than its essentially radical nature. It became a heritage art, a musical museum. From the mid-70s onwards, jazz became a series of more-or-less predictable hybrids: contrasting sets of clichés rubbing up gently against one another. Pleasant, but not world-changing. Symbiosis became formula. For a while, Jazz lost its edge. 

Not anymore. Thanks to this group of Los Angeles-based experimenters led by Flying Lotus, a new and vibrant kind of jazz has arrived: multi-faceted, electronic, immersed in hip-hop and other musical forms, and wildly experimental in every aspect of its conception. 

As well as John and Alice Coltrane, the spirit that seems to hang approvingly over these sounds is that of Afro-Futurist and psychedelic jazz pioneer Sun Ra. It is Ra’s wildness of spirit, his humour and spiritual yearning, that infuses and informs the music of Flying Lotus, and which Fly-Lo, in turn, re-makes in his own image, creating a new improvisatory art. Technological without being dystopian, dreamlike without being whimsical, mind-expanding without being irrational: right now, Flying Lotus and the rest of the L.A. jazz scene are setting the pace of innovation in music.


Flying Lotus plays All Points East in Victoria Park E3 on Sunday 27th May


Dominic Dawes is a media/communications professional, writer and musician who specialises in technology, music and the arts. His communications agency can be found at and follow him on Twitter: @domdawes