When it comes to the place of jazz music in the 21st Century, nobody had anything more poignant or divisive to say than renowned spoken word artist and jazz alumnus Gil Scott-Heron. On his 2011 collaboration with electronic producer Jamie xx, We’re New Here – an album that, released mere months before Scott-Heron’s untimely death, paradoxically heralded the end of one great musical career alongside the start of another – Scott-Heron provides listeners with ample food for thought during the album’s penultimate track, spoken-word interlude ‘Jazz‘, where he states:
“Jazz music is dance music…dance music from its earliest beginnings, to where it is now”.
Taken at face value, the statement seems little more than vindication for the elder statesman’s oddball choice to collaborate with a relatively unknown, upstart electronic producer from the UK. In reality, however, Scott-Heron was speaking to something much deeper about the state of jazz as he saw it. Not only had the jazz of the last two decades been dominated by the undeniably talented, yet nevertheless esoteric extremes of dissonance and experimentation belonging to acts such as John Zorn and Zu. Jazz had become over-intellectualised, bloated, and self-important; driftwood utterly severed from its roots, dragged by the current down a tributary from which there seemed no return. In Scott-Heron’s eyes, the true successor to the jazz music of the 50s and 60s wasn’t this – it was hip-hop and EDM. It was music for the people to get down to.
If ever mainstream jazz needed a saviour, then, thirty-five year old tenor saxophonist and bandleader Kamasi Washington is it. For two hours, he and his seven-piece backing band, a veritable who’s-who of West Coast jazz which included former Suicidal Tendencies drummer Ronald Bruner Jr., bassist Miles Mosley, and his very own father on soprano sax and flute, transfixed and hypnotised their packed-out audience at Sydney’s The Metro, and it’s not hard to see why. Where other jazz musicians get lost in pretense or imitation, Kamasi Washington takes just as much influence in both composition and arrangement from hip-hop and dance music as he does Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock.
Coming off his major-label debut, 2015’s acclaimed The Epic, a sublime blend of hard and post-bop, funk, soul, gospel and fusion assembled in a decidedly West-Coast framework, Washington manages to sound as captivating and accessible as he does fresh. With a stunningly varied setlist that ranged from Washington standard Changing of the Guard, to a moving tribute to Malcolm X, and a cover of trumpeter Ryan Porter’s touchingly heartfelt composition Anaya, Washington, his looming stage presence offset by a trademark sense of self-deprecating banter, led his band through stirring performance after stirring performance. Such is the respect and attention that Washington commands onstage – simultaneously refusing to castrate his art without letting improvisation turn into self-indulgence – that not even the spectacle of a lone punter clad head to toe in Adidas track gear and the stench of cheap beer brawling with three security guards in the corner could tear the crowd’s attention offstage.
Make no mistake about it. If Davis, Coltrane, Monk and Ellington are jazz royalty, then Washington is their prodigal son, poised to reclaim their crown after a directionless interregnum of pomp and pretence. If there’s anybody who understands not only the spirit of jazz in the 21st Century, but music itself as a quintessentially human expression, then it’s Kamasi Washington. His stage show is a tour-de-force that must not be missed. Highly recommended.
Live Review: KAMASI WASHINGTON @ The Metro, Sydney 23/03/2016
I Probably Hate Your Band is a shitty website full of asshole writers. We do nothing but destroy the hopes and dreams of young bands, and have never offered a single positive thing to the world. /Sarcasm
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