Kamasi Washington. Boulder Theater. 09.24.15
There’s a scene in the film Playing by Heart where Angelina Jolie and Ryan Phillippe are sitting in a jazz club discussing life over a gin martini. Phillippe is portraying a sober club kid with a wounded soul, while Jolie is cast as the confident, self-assured vixen who is really a softie at heart. While trying to extract details about his ex-girlfriend, Jolie tells Phillippe about a musician friend of hers who covers Chet Baker on trumpet. When she tries to verbalize how the piece makes her feel, her friend tells her that “talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” I don’t know why, but that scene (specifically that line) has always stuck with me. The origination of the quote is up for debate, but I think about it every time I write. Why bother writing about something that cannot be put into words? A laptop keyboard cannot simulate a guitar riff or a funky bass line. Tone and melody cannot be felt by reading lyrics off a page. And vibrations are nonexistent on the internet. That’s why I’ve always tried to relay my live music experiences by focusing on the actual ‘experience’, rather than the music itself. Writing about music really is like dancing about architecture, but sharing an experience is something else. My only hope is that someone will be able to relive their night through my words. Or that someone who is considering going to a show will be able to get a feel as to what to expect. I think I’ve been successful in achieving those modest goals with this blog, but I’m unsure if I’ll be successful tonight. Seeing Kamasi Washington and the West Coast Get Down perform at the Boulder Theater on their first tour was almost a spiritual experience, but it was also my first jazz show (and I don’t know jack about jazz), so this might be as disastrous as the box office results of that Willard Carroll film.
My first seated show at the Boulder Theater was nice because we had great seats in the Golden Circle, but it was also a little frustrating to be confined during a performance that had so much energy. It took serious effort to contain myself during the extended version of “Change Of The Guard” that opened the set, especially when Washington stepped aside to let his longtime friend Miles Mosley run free on the upright bass. And I wasn’t alone. Looking around the room at a diverse crowd that included the young, the old, and even families with children in tow, exposed heads bopping, shoulders shaking, and feet tapping, but no one wanted to be the first to stand up. It was only between songs that standing ovations became the norm, but everyone returned to their seats when the band geared up for the next selection. “Change of The Guard” lasted a full twenty minutes before the transition into “The Next Step”. Washington spent most of the night in the center of the stage with his tenor sax, but every member of the Get Down was given multiple opportunities to shine. The spotlight came to Brandon Coleman early, as he worked the keys like a master during the second choice from The Epic. Having recorded the album a few years ago (even though it was just released in May), the songs had evolved quite a bit since the recordings, but their basic structures were unchanged; making them quite recognizable to those who’d spent time with the 3-hour masterpiece.
Washington addressed the differences in the compositions by explaining that they were performing for us the same way they performed in the studio; making a joke that he closed his eyes and picked which versions would appear on the album at random. An almost larger than life figure, Washington was obviously the band leader, but it was also obvious that he wasn’t threatened by being surrounded by equals. Having grown up with everyone on the stage (some since they were in diapers), the improvisation came easy among the old friends. The fact that they all grew up to be masters of their craft, and are able to read each other well enough to predict what is coming next, is a rare phenomenon. It’s literally something they make movies about. And although Thundercat did not make an appearance in Boulder, Mosley did more than hold his own on bass duties. He also layered gospel-like blues vocals over his own “Abraham”; a song where the simmering, under the surface hip-hop flavor boiled over in the form of “99 Problems”. It’s no secret that Kamasi Washington is experiencing a lot of attention from those outside the jazz scene because he laid the foundation for Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” (his fingerprints are all over that album), so it wasn’t surprising when those elements could be found fluttering around the set. What was surprising was how the diverse sounds came together to create something that sounded brand new, yet classic at the same time.
“Henrietta Our Hero” was dedicated to Washington’s grandmother. Remembered as a four foot tall woman who had “no money or education”, Henrietta was a “pinnacle for doctors and lawyers and saxophonists.” Concerned that people who take care of those in need are not celebrated enough, Washington brought out Patrice Quinn to sing the praises of his hero. His dad also joined them on stage to show his respect with a little jazz flute. As the beautiful song progressed, Kamasi could be found watching his father with an immense amount of respect and admiration. An extremely talented musician himself, Ricky Washington must have been a huge influence on Kamasi’s career path, but it seems Patrice Quinn might be the one who finds the most favor. Her voice was referred to by Washington as “my favorite sound” more than once during the evening. And you can’t blame him. They met in high school when she had just started singing. Her voice immediately made him emotional, so he asked her to be in his band. She said yes and they’ve been musical partners ever since. Quinn’s voice is angelic, classic, smooth, soft, and demanding…all at the same time. It’s also one of those things that cannot be put into words. I’m sure if Henrietta could have heard her last night, she would have been proud.
Next up it was time for a Brandon Coleman composition. Claiming it was his favorite song, and even accusing Coleman (aka “Professor Boogie”) of stealing it from his brain “on the astral plane“, Washington let it go as his good friend guided them through “Giant Feelings” with style. Switching back and forth between the keyboard and the Moog (“Moog, not Casio”), Coleman paved the road while the rest of the Get Down followed closely behind. Ricky left the merch booth unattended a little longer in order to show off his soprano sax skills on that one as well. Then it was time to set “the two beasties” loose. Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner, Jr. had both been keeping time behind their own drum kits all evening, but a little friendly competition never hurt anyone, so the dueling drums began. Austin is the engineer, so he kept things precise, but Bruner, Jr. had to let loose to live up to his reputation. Washington had told a story about how Bruner kicked his ass on his own drum set at his third birthday party (when Bruner was only one and a half years old), thus forcing him to take up the sax instead, so Burner took advantage of the hype by leveling the Boulder Theater, without ever breaking eye contact with Austin. It was another example of the comradery among the members of the band. It also proved there wasn’t a weak link to be found on that stage as they got deep into “Final Thought”.
The set ended with “The Rhythm Changes”, with Quinn back on vocals and Ricky back on the stage. Finally getting fed up with sitting down, we made our way to the back of the theater to dance along with the final selection. When it came to an end, I could hardly believe we’d be entranced for well over two and a half hours. Washington and his friends looked like they could have kept playing all night. It was their first tour and their first time in Colorado, yet they never mentioned the altitude. And from where we were standing, it hardly looked like they broke a sweat. Washington thanked the audience, professed his love, and then invited everyone to “come say hi” as he “signed stuff” after the show. “Buy me a drink or just say what’s up.” Humble words from a man who just performed an epic show. Humility worn well by a man who released the jazz album of the year. Kamasi has hip-hop to thank for the opportunity to share his true skills with the world, but it is his talents as a saxophonist and jazz composer (and choice of friends) that are going to take him to the next level. I’ve never been a big jazz fan, but Kamasi Washington and the West Coast Get Down opened my ears to something I didn’t know I was missing. I count myself lucky to have attended the Boulder stop on their first tour. I have a feeling it’s one of those things my future grandchildren will be jealous of…even though my words will never do it justice.
Change Of The Guard
The Next Step
Henrietta Our Hero
The Rhythm Changes