Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl the stacked double bill included two jazz giants, both towering in their own right. Kamasi Washington, shepherd of the new generations of psych-experimental jazz-funk, kicked off the night with his emotive, empathetic set, only to be followed by the iconic Herbie Hancock and his inimitable rhythm section. Both sets were bold, imaginative, and brilliant, yet they were wildly different in execution, feeling, and set-up. Below, we’ve reviewed each set separately, as they each practically functioned as their own show.
Kamasi Washington doesn’t just play the saxophone, he speaks truth through it. Last night Washington’s expansive, inescapable warmth emanated from the stage, not just in his inclusion of his very own dad in the mass of musicians assembled to bring his vision to life, not just in his continual shout outs of bass player Miles Mosley (who is also a founding member of the West Coast Get Down, along with Kamasi) and the rest of his rhythm section, and not even just when he was praising Herbie Hancock, a legend who he humbly preceded at the Hollywood Bowl last night.
No, the moment when Washington most clearly spoke the truth was right before he played his own ode to the concept, “The Truth,” part of a six-movement suite that he debuted at The Whitney Museum earlier this year. Yes, this is the kind of music that belongs in museums, but it is also the kind of music that belongs in the streets, in bedrooms, soundtracking the mundane and marvelous moments of 2017. Because, at the heart of “The Truth” is Washington’s willful dedication to celebrating the diverse, vibrant city of Los Angeles that raised him, and his introduction to the song, in so many words, served as a rebuttal against the undercurrents of hate and division that have been sweeping across our nation.
Jazz is a distinctly black music traditionally, a distinctly American music at heart, and the performance last night predominantly spotlighted some of the most fantastic black jazz musicians in Los Angeles — if not the world. Their community was opened up to the rest of the crowd, out in the Hollywood Bowl with so much love pouring out through their music, that, for a moment, I felt a wholeness that has generally been lacking in 2017. You see, Kamasi was interested in looking further than himself, he was interested, specifically, in bringing people who are explicitly different, together, which in many ways, is what jazz itself does.
Jazz brings together the improvisation and skill and style of many decades and insists all these things live close, even on top of or in seeming opposition to one another, until they combine into something more brilliant and fierce than any single one of these elements could possibly achieve apart. It’s the messy, complex clashes of jazz, and Kamasi’s style in particular, the maximalistic joy and unrelenting grace that makes his show a sight to behold. If there is an argument for jazz in 2017 it is rooted in this emotional exposition as much as any musical praise we may lavish upon a virtuosos like Kamasi.
Nowhere was this thesis more clear than during the final number of the night, “The Rhythm Changes,” a song that centers existence, the act of living, the spark of being above glory and love, art or the cosmos. Vocalist Patrice Quinn’s voice sounds like it’s smiling the whole way through, facing down the ravages of time, and the brokenness of the human experience, holding firmly to the center of our inescapable need for balance — dark by which to see the light. Maybe it seemed so right for the moment because the song succinctly argues that even love, or rather, the absence of it, pales in comparison to celebration of the unadulterated self. It makes a person out of every moment, and crowns that person worthy of the entire cosmos. So in the dark, when you whispered to me that this one, this must be “our song,” it felt like the truth.