The Liner Notes is a newsletter written by the noted author and music journalist Marcus J. Moore. Click here to subscribe for the latest in soul, jazz and hip-hop.
The conversation between jazz and outer space isn’t a new phenomenon. From the saxophonist John Coltrane to the keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith, musicians have long sought to convey their own visions of outer space through weightless melodies meant to score the journey there. The most dedicated enthusiast of this approach was Sun Ra, the Alabama-born pianist who believed Black people would never find freedom on Earth, and that true emancipation resided on Saturn. As the story goes, he became interested in the planet during college after an out-of-body experience beamed him there. “My whole body was changed into something else,” the artist said, according to John Szwed’s biography, Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. “I could see through myself.”
Others like the saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and the harpist Alice Coltrane merged the notion of space with the sounds of West Africa and India, and made cosmic-themed music that envisioned the planets while incorporating rhythms from those geographic regions. Conceptually, they influenced a new generation of creators — producers like Madlib, Georgia Anne Muldrow and Flying Lotus — to blend hip-hop, trance music and spiritual jazz into an esoteric brew of festive and unusual art for younger listeners. Nala Sinephro, a London-based composer who plays modular synth and pedal harp, is the latest to take jazz and meditative music far beyond Earth.
Her debut album, Space 1.8, is an eight-song suite designed to examine how music moves matter. In that way, it recalls Esperanza Spalding’s 2018 album 12 Little Spells, where each track was inspired by a different part of the body. Featuring a who’s who of the U.K. jazz scene, including Nubya Garcia, Jake Long and Shirley Tetteh, among others, Space 1.8 is a communal effort that was recorded between 2018 and 2019 in Sinephro’s home studio and at Pink Bird, a vaunted recording space in East London, all in rooms with warm lighting. The idea, she has said, was to foster community around the music. Each track was recorded in one take and tapped into the creative energy of the planet Venus.
An upstart talent, Sinephro has already earned effusive praise from her peers, having played alongside the singer Demae and with the London Contemporary Orchestra. When she’s not creating her own music, she deejays on NTS Radio, where she shares her favorite spiritual sounds each month. Space 1.8 was driven by Sinephro's interests in physics and psychoacoustics (or the study of how humans perceive sound), and was influenced by her own health struggles in her early twenties. She once had a tumor; in turn, the album reflects her commitment to meditation. "Recording the album was deeply medicinal and what my body needed at that time,” she said in a press release. “I became more focused on the inner workings of the body and created a sonic world that helped me heal.”
Throughout this LP, Sinephro manipulates synthetic sound waves, tweaking the frequencies to undulate through the left and right channels, increasing and decreasing the volume to give certain tracks an oceanic feel. Elsewhere, on “Space 2,” the synth just sort of drifts about, aiding the track’s serene mix of percussion and piano, the sound of a rainy day. Conversely, “Space 4” is an upbeat swell of hypnotic droning, periodic horn blasts and staggered live drums that gets more aggressive as it unfolds. Elsewhere, we hear songs like "Space 1," a glowing number with birds and nature sounds captured in Belgium's Sonian Forest where Sinephro played as a child.
Overall, Space 1.8 emits a strong sense of calm, and is meant to bring solace in a world of peril. It's easy to call this jazz, ambient or even electronica, yet through Sinephro’s mixing of textures and genres, she’s landed on a sound that's all these things at the exact same time. Space 1.8 feels like the past and present coming through at once — the spirit of Alice and the power to soothe.