In 2019, West Philadelphia Orchestra began performing a funky new tune at concerts. The track was an instrumental called “Cosmic Freak,” and with its exuberant whir of syncopated rhythms and crazed brass squeals, it became a crowd favorite soon after the group debuted it at a Balkan music festival.
“It was a really cool dance party hit,” says Gregg Mervine, the ensemble’s percussionist and composer. “I named it ‘Cosmic Freak’ because I had been reading a book about sampling and the guy was saying, ‘How do you tell what's a good record to sample?’ He's like, ‘If it has the word cosmic or freak in it, that’s the one we listen to first.’ It didn’t mean anything at the time. It was just a personal joke to me.”
Mervine began to feel the song needed something more. Then he realized he knew a “cosmic freak” of the Philly music scene: Michael Baker a.k.a. Rumi Kitchen, a singer and self-described “Funk Spiritualist” with a mind-expanding body of work. Mervine invited Baker to collaborate on the track, and the latter added his own breakneck-speed vocals. “He sends this demo with him rapping on it, and we were like, Whoa,” Mervine recalls.
From this unholy fusion emerged a new collaboration between West Philadelphia Orchestra and Rumi Kitchen. On February 18, the Philly-based independent label The Giving Groove will release their jointly billed three-song EP, Cosmic Trilogy, which merges high-octane funk, space-age jazz, and hip-hop—often within the confines of a single song.
From the beatbox-powered soul of “Cosmic Grind” to the avant-jazz revelations of “Star Steppin” to the tongue-twisting jazz-rap of “Cosmic Freak,” Cosmic Trilogy is a fireball of groove and energy. Its eclectic vibrations connect the dots between Klezmer music and Sun Ra, Funkadelic and Frank Ocean, Philadelphia and Mars. It contains elements of both Balkan brass and free jazz, the latter reflecting the influence of WPO saxophonist Elliott Levin, a poet who has traveled all over the world playing in jazz bands.
“Jazz, to me, is a million different things,” says Mervine. “With West Philly Orchestra in general, we have this influence of avant-garde jazz: Albert Ayler, the late Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders. There's a noisy element—this free energy element that just wants to vibrate in the way I get from listening to some of those records.”
“It’s dimensional. It’s spacey. It’s cosmic,” says Rumi Kitchen of the EP. “It’s a jazz tradition of embracing the Far Out-ness of music and being loose and free on the edges of it. In Philly, there's a long tradition of the Sun Ra Arkestra. They loom very large in our mythos. It's the whole idea that we're not of this world. We're messing with a power that's sort of beyond human form.”
Indeed, the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra is one of the institutions that unites the disparate worlds of West Philadelphia Orchestra and Rumi Kitchen. Founded by Mervine in 2006, West Philadelphia Orchestra took influence from the village bands that exist in Eastern Europe, particularly in the Baltic states and Romania. WPO drew a following while performing at local puppet theaters and neighborhood ensembles, and its influences range from Bulgarian brass bands to punk music to Sun Ra.
Meanwhile, Michael Baker moved to Philadelphia in 2006 and later formed the space rock & roll band OOLALA while jamming in a garage with collaborator Korey Jones. The band built a local following for its psychedelic grooves and heady live performances, which often feature Baker gifting a golden egg to the audience as a symbol of cosmic rebirth. A multi-instrumentalist, Baker now goes by Rumi Kitchen, which he describes as a heightened persona of himself.
Rumi Kitchen’s eclectic influences range from space itself (the musician has an amateur interest in quantum mechanics and cosmology) to the intergalactic vibrations of the Sun Ra Arkestra, several of whom happen to be Kitchen’s neighbors in West Philly. The Arkestra’s 98-year-old saxophonist and current bandleader, Marshall Allen, lives just a few blocks away, and Rumi Kitchen considers him a good friend.
Though all three songs on Cosmic Trilogy document the collaboration of WPO with Rumi Kitchen, all three emerged in different ways. “Cosmic Freak,” of course, began as a West Philadelphia Orchestra original before Rumi Kitchen’s frenetic rapping brought it to a new level. The song features a scale that’s popular in Balkan and Klezmer music. “The whole song is tension. This scale is very unresolved,” says Mervine. “It just puts you in this place and it keeps getting more and more unresolved.”
By contrast, the brooding “Cosmic Grind” grew out of a song that Rumi Kitchen wrote himself while beat-boxing and singing. Then he taught it to Mervine, who wrote horn parts and worked out the groove for West Philadelphia Orchestra. “Of course, they took it and made it greater and bigger than I’d ever thought to,” says Rumi Kitchen.
Finally, Mervine and Rumi Kitchen decided to write one song together. They got together one night with a MIDI keyboard and a dearth of ideas. Then Mervine built a beat around a loop of four descending notes, and Rumi Kitchen contributed the chorus. The result was “Star Steppin,” which progresses from an apocalyptic choir overture to an exuberantly melodic chorus.
Cosmic Trilogy also features production work by legendary producer Joe "The Butcher" Nicolo (The Fugees, Aerosmith), a frequent Rumi Kitchen collaborator, and will be promoted by a trippy “Cosmic Freak” music video aglow with psychedelic imagery.
The EP has been in the works since 2019, but its momentum was heavily stalled by COVID-19. “It's been on the shelf, kind of looking at us as the best thing both of us have done,” says Rumi Kitchen.
“Before the pandemic, we were planning on releasing this and then traveling as a huge caravan of people,” the musician adds. “During the thick of the pandemic, I was like, ‘I don't even know if we're gonna put that out. It doesn't feel right anymore.’ But then it totally turned around and I feel like it’s perfect timing for it to come out. I feel like, in a way, this is sort of like an escape, you know?”
The Cosmic Trilogy vibrates with the spirit of collaboration and togetherness that feels all the more valuable and rare in the pandemic age. As Rumi Kitchen puts it, “I think music is a way to take you out of your body and your place and connect you to the cosmos. Size doesn't matter. Place doesn't matter. We're all in this thing that we don't understand.”
The Giving Groove operates under a unique revenue model in which it pays artists 50 percent of all after-tax profit and donates the remaining 50 percent to a music-related charity of the artist’s choice. West Philadelphia Orchestra and Rumi Kitchen have chosen to direct that revenue to Rock to the Future, a 501(c)3 organization that equips Philadelphia youth with life skills to support current and lifelong well-being through free, student-driven music programs.
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