8/20/15 – The Sinclair

I didn’t think they were all going to fit, but they did.

First the nine members of Ripe, then Kamasi Washington and the six members of his West Coast Get Down collective on the modest Sinclair stage on Thursday night.

The born-to-be lead singer of Ripe, Robbie Wulfsohn, ushered in their set by saying, “This is a judgement free zone, get weird with it,” encouraging everybody to dance and beginning a set-long inquisition to ensure that all complied.

Some did dance, but most didn’t, much to Wulfsohn’s visible chagrin as he announced, “This is a new one, but y’all don’t know the music, so it’s chill.” But he was wrong, or at least kind of wrong – maybe they didn’t know the music, but the crowd livened up themselves and the song ended with ovation.

Ripe is the party-funk band every city has, only they do it better than most. They took “Lola” by The Kinks, and made a syncopated funk arrangement out of a classic rock laughingstock. They laced their originals with intelligent guitar solos and polyphonic horn lines. They dropped the strings and let the horns stand alone in a pop-tinged second line a la Trombone Shorty.

But Wulfsohn shined above all, his tall hair and significant presence always lurking, even during instrumental passages. His vocals went at times from half-rap to half-scat to, at one point, a nearly Rage Against the Machine gutturality. Mostly they were soulful and polished, highly controlled and emotive.

A forgettably kitschy rendition of “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” an excuse to trade solos, ended the set, though the overwhelmingly good showing from the boys of Ripe certainly earned admirers.

But most were there for Kamasi. As Ripe departed, the crowd pushed forward to the stage, not back to the bar. The emperor was arriving and everybody wanted to be as close as possible to his aura. He didn’t disappoint, taking the stage to the beat of an ancillary drumline and his bassist’s authorial voice – “Ladies and gentleman . . . Mr. Kamasi Washington!” – in his regal dashiki, saxophone in hand.

That in 2015 a jazz musician was taking the stage to the applause of an ironically diverse group of mostly white people (college hipsters, tucked-up working stiffs, and jazzhead beats, the original hipsters) was slightly strange. But Kamasi Washington’s CV is different from most jazz bandleaders. He toured with Snoop Dogg, played on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, and released his incomprehensibly massive three-disk magnus opus The Epic not on Blue Note, but Brainfeeder, the Los Angeles record label of hip-hop producer Flying Lotus.

 

His hip-hop street cred has certainly brought him fans that don’t listen to much jazz, but that isn’t to say he plays jazz that would make a connoisseur turn up his nose. He is most certainly the real thing, swaying with the swagger of a bandleader, handing out solos to his bandmates with the point of a finger, and of course, taking his own absurdly good solos.

He opened with “Change the Guard,” featuring his talented 17-year-old pianists’ modal keys prominently. A conversation emerged between the two drummers, taking center stage, before becoming submerged again in the mix. Kamasi offered a spiritual solo and a brief hip-hop beat segued into the groovy percussion of “Re Run Home.” Hip chords entered from the keys and a few “yeahs!” came forth from Miles Mosley on upright bass as he plucked along the ostinato bassline. “Soul guy number one,” Ryan Porter, played a somewhat subdued trombone solo before stepping off stage to record Mosley’s wah-wah-effected bass solo.

There was something very intimate about him holding his iPhone above his head recording his bandmate, while Kamasi nodded and smiled. They are, for the most part, life-time friends – a family of musicians equally infatuated with each others abilities. During thirty minutes of non-stop music, the band played as tight as only long time friends can.

Kamasi took the mic and explained that he wasn’t the only one to record an album – when he went to the studio with his L.A. crew of friends, many of them recorded their own. A good deal of the night was set aside for Kamasi to feature some of their cuts, like Ryan Porter’s arrangement of “Oscarlipso” and Mosley’s stand-out “Abraham,” a slick, hip composition with nods to hip-hop in the soulful lyric (“I’m a little 5150”) and allusions to Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” in the wah-effected bass solo.

But the stand out was a chilling rendition of “Malcolm’s Theme” that saw Patrice Quinn shine on vocals and Kamasi’s own father leave his seat at the merch table and take the stage on soprano saxophone. It was an incredibly emotional, multi-generational jam in honor of Malcolm X. The lyrics, made up from excerpts of Ossie Davis’s eulogy, made the multi-generational jam even more emotional. It was a truly spiritual moment – Quinn’s ululating cries pointed to black anger, the lyrics noted black power, and the familial band showed black love. As Quinn sang, “We leave you now with words from el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz,” all who had heard The Epic expected to hear the powerful sample of the man himself speaking, but it couldn’t be orchestrated live, for what was an otherwise immaculate performance.

Quinn was featured once again on vocals on the final song, “Rhythm Changes.” As she and the band vamped on the final line (“I’m here!”), the West Coast Get Down again became religiously good in their virtuosity. Kamasi Washington is one of the few musicians that reminds us how real music is. In doing so he is a music writer’s worst nightmare, because he reminds us of the inadequacy of words. Words are just symbols, music is Real. Music transcends, inspires, and spiritualizes. And when it comes from Kamasi Washington, it does it even better.

Kamasi Washington’s three-part debut The Epic was released on May 5th, 2015. Listen to “Change the Guard” and “Re Run Home.

Spiritual Jazz: Kamasi Washington
Pros
  • Virtuosic jazz
  • Never-before-heard features
Cons
  • Only an 8-song set
9.2Spiritual Jazz

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