First Rock from the Sun
Mercury (4.5 Ws)
In the last half-century, several international space programs have allocated funding for exploratory missions to Mars. No men have gone, but there have been plenty of little machines hunting for traces of life, past or present. To many scientists’ pleasant surprise, there is life on Mars, or at least there was—evidence of a once lush planet, not unlike our own.
There are no missions, however, manned or otherwise, on their way to Mercury. The tiny planet is a dense metal ball, uninhabitable, untouchable, and the sun’s first course in its final, galaxy-swallowing feast.
We know these things about Mercury through highly intricate math, advanced machinery. But no one knows, or can know what Mercury is truly like: no one has been, and no one can, in our fragile human state.
That’s why, when an artist dedicates a project to the ultimate unknowable, our imaginations, not our telescopes, are the most important tools we’ve got.
Darryl Reeves is one such artist. His brand-new release is named for our galaxy’s hot little marble, which, through avid astrologers and those needing an explanation for their own bad luck, is a little galactic celebrity come Retrograde.
In fact, Reeves, an alto saxophonist, features a song entitled “Retrograde” on the album. Taking what you know from those addled by the phenomenon, you might be able to sense in the music what many claim they experience every time Mercury appears to reverse its course. But what’s interesting is that, though the song is called “Retrograde,” it’s not a track of “things going wrong,” i.e., starts and stops, tortured vocals, or harmonic dissonance—the latter of which might be the most obvious way one could express the concept of spiritual/cosmic dissonance.
This sense of subtlety, of suggestion over assumption, is what gives Reeves his power. There are plenty of keyboard and electronic sounds (provided by Kenny Banks), which are unmistakably “cosmic” in sound; but conceptually, Reeves and his band go much further than “space theme music.”
Such a stretch is necessary for Reeves, whose style is the sort many would automatically dub “fusion.” He is wittingly part of the long legacy of jazz musicians who incorporate elements of the electronic, soulful, and funky into their structurally complex improvised music—and who suffer endless criticism from so-called purists. The most obvious progenitor to Reeves’ style is Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew: that album was a turning point for Davis, and jazz’s sound as a whole; and, at first glance, you can’t help but notice the kinship between the two albums, at least in their devotion to musical alchemy (and their album covers, for that matter).
On a more recent scale, Reeves deserves comparison to the Atlanta-based jazz group Jaspects. Reeves himself is an Atlantan, and shares with the group an obvious love for hip-hop, as evidenced by Kenton Bostick’s style of drumming, and the inclusion of emcee D-Focis on the Donald Byrd tune “Think Twice.”
But Reeves’ cover of “Think Twice,” while an homage to hip-hop, is also an important homage to the legacy of Donald Byrd and his contemporaries. Reeves’ arrangement of the tune is not tremendously different from the original, which, in today’s jazz, is strange, since many artists seem to do just the opposite. But for Reeves to try to wildly reinvent a tune by an artist to whom he clearly owes so much of his style, would be foolish, arrogant—and he knows it. Thus, his changes are simple: he plays with the time, feel, and form of the song and, of course, adds a rap verse. But through this simplicity, he does the important work of honoring his musical ancestors. He combines what’s good and what works with what’s new, and yet to be universally accepted. He pushes the music where it needs to go—forward. Away from the static, out into eternal orbit.