Over the past few years, concert patrons have stopped the musician Carlos Niño after gigs to ask two simple questions: “Are you a shaman?” “I hear the medicine in your music, can I come to your next ceremony?” The queries are fair enough: Looking at Niño, a tall man with a wild beard and kind eyes, one would think he’s from some faraway time and could maybe cast spells. Once you get to know him, you find that he’s just an incredibly sweet guy with a laid-back demeanor, and that he isn’t some guru claiming to have an all-access pass to the otherworld.
So what does he say to those wondering if he’s a spiritual teacher?
“I’m just chillin’, on fire,” he declares. “I’m not rolling with or out any kind of religious or traditional focus, rules or doctrine. I’m just presenting something that has a lot of energy, and is intended to be an opening for those of us who are journeying, creating musically, and for those who gather with us.”
Indeed, there’s a communal essence to Niño’s self-described Energetic Space Music. As leader of Carlos Niño & Friends, he encourages his collaborators to improvise without preconceived ideas of what the sound is supposed to entail. His new album, (I’m just) Chillin’, on Fire, features more than a dozen musicians and includes a who’s who of sonic experimentation — everyone from guitarist Nate Mercereau and saxophonist Kamasi Washington, to New Age cornerstone Laraaji and hip-hop legend André 3000 playing his now trademark flute. On purpose, Niño lets the music drift and the unity ensue, making (I’m just) Chillin’, on Fire another highlight in a recent run of sublime work.
But where albums like 2020’s Chicago Waves (with multi-instrumentalist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson) and last year’s Extra Presence hovered in the speakers, (I’m just) Chillin’ forges ahead in certain spots through energetic drums equally indebted to jazz and electronic funk. It eschews genre, but the tenets of ‘70s underground jazz are present. Fifty years ago, acts like Brother Ah, the Ensemble Al-Salaam and Mtume Umoja Ensemble crafted music that scanned as Spiritual Jazz yet flared in many different directions. They leaned into the transcendence of the music overall, not artificial terms used to market it. (I’m just) Chillin’ emits the same emotion: On “Mighty Stillness,” when the experimental violinist V.C.R proclaims her “ancestral right” to rest, she evokes Black women like Jeanne Lee, Jayne Cortez and Beatrice Parker, innovative vocalists from indie scenes who embodied the same freedom. Then on “Love Dedication (for Annelise),” Niño uses subtle bass (from Michael Alvidrez) and a serene piano loop (from Surya Botofasina) to speak of endearment in broad terms. “Love is unconditional — everywhere, everything, flowing always,” he observes. “Totally alive, no upper limit.” Though he hesitates to embrace comparisons to the spacious arrangements heard on indie labels of the ‘70s like Strata, Strata-East and Tribe (only because of how much he respects their legacies, not wanting to claim any space in their fields), there’s no denying his stature as an anchor in the jazz, hip-hop and beat scenes in Los Angeles over the last nearly 30 years, and how his influences are alive in what he makes.
“All of those labels to me are hugely influential,” Niño says. “When I think about Strata-East, I immediately think of Pharaoh Sanders, and I think of one of my favorite albums of all-time, Live at the East (on Impulse!), and how The East and that movement is a huge influence. I’m not from that community. I don’t claim any direct connection to it, but my awareness of it and my appreciation of it is gigantic.”
The vocals for (I’m just) Chillin’ were compiled unconventionally. “I was like, ‘I’m going to turn on the mic, and you’re going to listen all the way through the album and record anything you’re feeling at any moment,’” Niño says of the creative process. “It was completely open to their interpretation.” He found that the vocalists Cavana Lee, Maia, Mia Doi Todd, and V.C.R interpreted the music in similar ways: “People who are not even in the same room, who did not hear what the other person did, they all created these really cool weavings — and it was so fun.”
While the album compiles live and studio arrangements recorded in places like Venice, Leimert Park and Woodstock over the past three years, it feels harmonious, as if captured in one space with all musicians present. This highlights Niño’s ability as a conductor and producer. That he could winnow such vast experimentation into a seamless set is a worthy feat on its own. Much like Niño’s other LPs, (I’m just) Chillin’ is an immersive listen that requires attentive ears to fully absorb. In a world dominated by social media and the 24-hour news cycle, it seems we’re all in a hurry for no reason in particular. By creating music with tender messages and leisurely pacing, Niño nudges listeners to slow down and appreciate life’s natural wonders, to savor the journey and not rush so quickly to the destination. In turn, his art conjures pastoral images — endless fields, boundless oceans, ripples crashing along the shoreline. It urges you to simply look up: notice the wind rustling through the trees, listen to the birds sing a glorious song. This is real life, the stuff you can’t quite capture with a smartphone camera. As a conduit, Niño embodies the water he cherishes so deeply. He’s not just the bandleader, but a vessel for everyone’s ideas to shine through.
“Creativity, to me, is an expression of a being’s state, and their states of being,” he says. “It’s really reflecting or reporting how they feel. The deeper ‘why’ is what I’m getting to with all this, what is inside that feeling, and it’s not uncharted territory. I’m one of these people who’s very into organizing, curating and offering; it’s a deeply sharing kind of thing. It’s a living thing; it grows. Sometimes it gets sculpted. Sometimes it gets rocked by forces outside of its maneuvering. Sometimes it looks one way. Sometimes it looks another way, but it’s alive.”
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