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.
After all the pomp and splendor of Kamasi’s magnificent set, you’d be forgiven for thinking booking made a mistake when Herbie’s five-piece band took the stage, sans orchestra. The only instruments were the collection of pianos and keyboards that primarily comprise Hancock’s expertise, drums, bass, guitar, and a frankly bewildering array of odds and ends arranged directly across from his little onstage domain. Drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, bassist James Genus, and guitarist Lionel Loueke are all of Hancock’s generation — from back when cool was cool, and adding funk and vocoders to jazz arrangements was still considered wild experimentation.
The fifth member of the quintet — Hancock’s secret weapon — is Terrace Martin. You may have heard of him. In short, he is the culmination of every curveball Hancock threw at the jazz world in the ’70s, all congealed and balled up into one universal force of music. He deftly incorporates what Herbie and his band have been doing for the better part of the last four decades, then whirls in a heaping dollop of modern hip-hop, transforming a genre that could seem to be stodgy and traditionalist through a wholly different frame of reference with projects like his work on To Pimp A Butterfly and with his own band, LA-based jazz-funk outfit The Pollyseeds, which also includes contributions from Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, singer Rose Gold, and more.
The contrast with Martin’s style isn’t to say that Herbie Hancock is stodgy — far from it. It seems like people who say they don’t like jazz come into it with certain preconceived notions. First of all, in dealing with a musical genre that has existed since the 1920s, it may strike some as old-fashioned. There is a misconception of slowness, of rigid conformity to a certain standard or non-lyrical style, or that jazz can only be saxophone, piano, trumpet, bass. What Herbie tends to do is turn all of those misconceptions on their ear, then throw them out the window, along with the classical notion of what a jazz band should look and sound like.
He was among the first to incorporate the synthesizer into the music; at one point late in the show, he wielded a keytar every bit as deftly as any ’80s New Waver — and possibly a good deal more creatively than they could have imagined. He also incorporated elements of rock and pop, injecting a swagger that was let loose on the Bowl stage by Loueke, who produced sounds from his axe I have legitimately never heard before while riffing in his sections. Ernie Isley would weep.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the stage, Martin pulled out every stop, taking every formula Hancock had ever tweaked or refined throughout his 50-plus year career, and shook all the bottles as if hoping to catalyze a chemical reaction. Whipping from tenor sax to keyboards and back, he splashed the skittering beats laid down by virtuoso Colaiuta with talk-box inflected harmonizing and scatting, stretching Hancock’s synthesized genre-pushing into 1980s funk euphoria. If Zapp had played in a studio right next door to Miles Davis’ quintet in a studio with bad soundproofing and a strong marijuana haze, it’d sound very similar to the alchemic concoction Hancock and Martin mixed up in Hollywood Wednesday night.
Of course, no Herbie Hancock set would be complete without a performance of “Cantaloupe Island” (you’d know it if you heard it), and Wednesday night went beyond “no exception” into downright sensational. While the original composition is a very, very laid-back sort of shoulder-shrugger, the Headhunters got extremely loose together, morphing it into a rocking, rolling, swaggering jam that demanded full body movement. I’ve never head-banged at a jazz concert before; it was something I got to add to bucket list and cross off in the same stroke as “seeing jazz legend Herbie Hancock live.” I replaced both with a new resolution: See Herbie Hancock live — again.