If you find yourself at an indoor jazz concert where thousands of people are mostly standing and even dancing, you’re probably either in the ’70s or at a Kamasi Washington show.
The composer, tenor saxophonist, and bandleader, who returns to the Twin Cities tonight at the Palace Theatre, infiltrated the culture at large with the 2015 release of The Epic, an album of unusual length (three generous discs) on which much else, from harmonies to personnel lists, were comparably extended and expanded. Even the album’s small-group performances weren’t too small (septets and octets), while the big bands were massive: often doubled rhythm sections and a three-piece horn frontline augmented by lead singers, strings, and choral arrangements.
Normally jazz-oblivious critics and fans were given a few enticements: The album was released by Brainfeeder Records, the label founded by the ingenious electronic producer-composer-fusionist Flying Lotus, and Washington had just played on and contributed string arrangements to fellow Los Angelino Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Still, even pretty successful jazz artists need just one hanging file folder for their press clippings and can estimate gig attendance without dividing square footage by occupant density, so I suspect no one predicted how much attention Washington would generate—more attention, it’s been plausibly said, than any jazz artist has attracted since around the time Washington was born in 1981.
He draws on varied, not only retrospective influences, but The Epic—searching, collectivist, groovy, political, Afrocentric, often modal and stretched out—first evoked the post-Coltrane spiritual jazz of the late ’60s and early ’70s. When I heard the opening track for the first time, I was skeptical, owing partly to a titular misreading. The tune, “Change of the Guard,” opens with pianist Cameron Graves playing forte chords around E-minor seven, octaves and a fifth in the left hand, if I’m hearing things correctly, with the right hand leaving out the third (interval) in favor of the fourth (or eleventh), so the chord’s minor quality is implied more than stated. A few voicings later there’s a cool chord with a major sixth up top before the change moves down to D. (Neither my knowledge of jazz harmony nor my ear training is by any means advanced, but I think I’m getting the basics of this right.)
Anyway, the combination of touch, harmony, and rhythm recalls McCoy Tyner, the great pianist best known for his work in John Coltrane’s classic ’60s quartet. Tyner’s wide, ambiguous chords, often built in fourths, are part of what made the quartet so distinctive. As Washington’s piece moved into its extended solos, I started to think it was odd that something called “Change of the Guard” sounded rather like an old guard pulling a double shift.
Later, I read an interview published by Tidal in which Washington clarified that the title wasn’t self-referential, that he had written the tune in tribute to his father, the multi-instrumentalist Rickey Washington, and other L.A. musicians who played exploratory jazz to little national recognition in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And on closer examination the track was hardly a retread. Washington’s choral and string arrangements, influenced in part by one of his teachers, Gerald Wilson, had some precedent in jazz (a few examples are mentioned below), and sometimes called to mind progressive ’70s R&B such as Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” as well as the classical tradition and a kind of Hollywood excess that to my ears wasn’t always welcome. But the whole amalgam was strange and idiosyncratic, out of step with the present but not quite like the past; those who think it’s the same old stuff are being reductive.
Rooted more than nostalgic, Washington’s music is designed to speak to the present and has become one of the signal artistic manifestations of Black Lives Matter, as the perceptive and flexible critic Nate Chinen elucidates in his recent book, Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century. Washington’s latest album, the two-disc set Heaven and Earth, expands its predecessor’s big string section to a full orchestra, nods effectively at early ’80s smooth jazz along the lines of Grover Washington Jr., throws down elephantine synth bass on “Street Fighter Mas,” and introduces what might become enduring praise songs such as “Journey,” written with singer Patrice Quinn. All in all it reveals a more individual writer and conceptualist.
As much as I admire Washington’s records, I was more enthralled seeing him perform with his core band, the Next Step, at last summer’s Rock the Garden. Partly this was because pieces and solos that seem to meander more than develop on record can become hypnotically joyful in a communal setting—and partly, I suppose, because it’s too expensive to tour with a choir.
Washington has lots of fans well versed in jazz. What follows is mostly designed for those who’ve spent more time with other styles and who might be understandably bewildered as to where next to explore jazz and its century-long recorded history. With Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and other Olympians missing, this is obviously not a proposed starter library, nor does it attempt to pin down Washington’s key influences. It works in a few but others, such as Wayne Shorter, are mentioned only in passing. It’s instead an alphabetical list of a dozen artists who informed or share some of Washington’s interests and attributes. Anachronistically, it recommends specific albums, but each entry also includes a streaming track, and each of those is compiled in a playlist way down below.
Muhal Richard Abrams
Though Washington composes, arranges, and produces his records, he’s not precisely a leader employing sidepeople in the usual way but rather part of a cooperative, the West Coast Get Down, whose members play on each other’s projects and who collectively financed the studio lockout that produced The Epic and other albums. One of jazz’s earlier and most influential cooperatives, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, was cofounded in the mid ’60s by Chicago pianist and composer Muhal Richard Abrams, who died last year at 87. The AACM was initially established to foster better development and performance opportunities for progressive South Side musicians. The organization’s domain expanded, however, and through albums and concerts by Abrams, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, Air, Amina Claudine Myers, and other members and fellow travelers, its ethos of boundaryless music rooted in black traditions became a prevailing vanguard force of the ’70s and ’80s. Like Washington, Abrams often wrote for large ensembles made up of rarely combined instruments, and his Catholic tastes led him to everything from Checkerboard Lounge blues to eerie polytonality to slanted big-band swing. His long association with Black Saint Records yielded several approachably singular albums. My favorites are Blues Forever,Mama and Daddy, View from Within, and Blu Blu Blu.
Very soon we’ll get to artists who sound more like Kamasi Washington, but let’s first touch on a Washington contemporary with similarly wide compositional ambitions and a commitment to social justice. Akinmusire’s pensive 2014 album, The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint, was mostly played by the trumpeter’s working quintet, but it also included parts written for the Osso String Quartet, three collaborations with genre-bending singer-lyricists (my favorite is a trudging ballad with Cold Specks), and a threnody in which synth and mellotron ground a child’s recitation of people of color killed by police. Akinmusire’s string of formally inventive releases continues with the just-released Origami Harvest, whose origins lie in part with a Liquid Music commission (go team). Here, he again scores for string quartet, this time the Mivos, and for half the album brings in rapper Kool A.D., best known for his magpie wordplay in Das Racist. (Second obligatory bit of local trivia: if I’m hearing things right, in “Americana / The Garden Waits for You to Watch Her Wildness,” Kool A.D. makes an ambiguous reference to Minnetonka, perhaps by way of the waters visited in that awful scene from Purple Rain.) Not a standard jazz-meets-hip-hop thing where an emcee spits over live beats—not standard in any way—Origami is a quietly acute suite for heartbreaking times.
An alto saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist whose sideman credits include stints with Miles Davis and McCoy Tyner, Bartz’s albums as a leader range from straight-ahead jazz to imbricated funk fusion. Washington has cited Bartz as one of his heroes and was presumably most influenced by Bartz’s mid’ 70s albums. I’ve Known Rivers and Other Bodies, a live set from ’74, has Bartz leading his NTU Troop through politically engaged, Coltrane-indebted pieces touched by soul and funk. Singer and pianist Andy Bey had recently left the group, replaced by the St. Paul–born Hubert Eaves (go team) on acoustic piano and Rhodes. Singing duties fell to Bartz himself; voice obviously isn’t his main instrument, but he gets the job done, especially on his stirring adaptation of Langston Hughes’s “I’ve Known Rivers.” He followed that success by teaming with funk-jazz blueprinters Larry and Fonce Mizell for a few albums: 1975’s The Shadow Do! and ’77’s Music Is My Sanctuary, the former an atmospheric head-bobber featuring choral singing. The Mizell-helmed albums and similarly commercial Bartz releases to follow were met with sometimes warranted sniffs from critics but were later embraced by hip-hop producers and fans (a bit of Shadow fell over A Tribe Called Quest’s “Butter”). Listeners who would rather hear Bartz in a more traditional jazz setting should try There Goes the Neighborhood!, a quartet date with the great Kenny Barron on piano.
Long discontinued, dismissed, or otherwise marginalized, multi-instrumentalist Alice Coltrane’s spiritually guided music has in recent decades been reappraised and rediscovered. She made her most defining records for Impulse Records in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Ptah the El Daoud reflects her rangy tastes and growing interest in Vedic scriptures and Hindu philosophy, but it’s more grounded in her jazz roots than subsequent efforts would be. Its lovely after-hours blues, “Turiya and Ramakrishna,” should win over riff-loving secularists squeamish around Coltrane’s later, more sui generis dialogues between jazz and Indian spirituality. Such as Journey in Satchidananda, a calming meditation on which Coltrane’s harp and piano blend with oud, tamboura, bass, drums, and, most prominently, Pharaoh Sanders’s soprano sax. She moved to organ and added strings and more dissonance to much of Universal Consciousness. Her long out-of-print Warner Brothers albums have just been compiled on a two-album set, Spiritual Eternal. In the early ’80s, Coltrane established an ashram in the Santa Monica mountains, where she made a series of hard to find or classify cassettes whose elements included Indian hymns, gospel, and new age. Last year, Luaka Bop had a left-field hit with an often beautiful compilation culled from those tapes, The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda.
When it comes to ambitious, politically conscious works of tenor-led spiritualism, John Coltrane is the paragon, and his presence is always felt in Washington’s music. Coltrane’s corpus offers many rewarding points of entry. Highlights include Giant Steps, from 1960, which has a now-standard ballad, “Naima,” and showcases the extreme harmonic complexity and Formula One speed that characterized much of Coltrane’s work for a year or two. My Favorite Things is another transitional stunner and one of the few holiday perennials that should never inspire dyspeptic barbs growled in Victorian nightshirts. Washington fans, though, should start with one of the recordings Coltrane made with the extraordinarily simpatico quartet in which he was supported and prodded by pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones. Tyner, who was mentioned above and whose albums as a leader are another Washington influence, was an exploratory globalist well matched to Coltrane’s sensibilities. A Love Supreme is the transcendent, multi-part classic of personal and religious transformation; Live at Birdland, partly recorded in the studio, contains the elegiac “Alabama”; the tuneful Coltrane is relatively minor but a good way in; the posthumously released Transition is a Washington favorite. If you get hooked, The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings isn’t excessive despite its four CDs. Adventurous listeners will want to sit down, at least once, with Ascension, a fire-music free improv recorded with a large group including two of Coltrane’s notable successors, Archie Shepp and the aforementioned Sanders. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Coltrane’s velvet ballad album with the baritone singer Johnny Hartman: romantic foreground music.
Owners and patrons of the intimate and in many ways ideal clubs where jazz is customarily played tend to not egg on dancing, even when a tune facilitates or demands such a response. The expansive grooves heard at Washington shows definitely call for and incite free-form dance, so if you espouse the radical idea that full-body movement and careful listening aren’t mutually exclusive, the Crusaders should help you out of your seat. The Houston-bred quartet of saxophonist Wilton Felder (who doubled on bass), trombonist Wayne Henderson, keyboardist Joe Sample, and drummer Stix Hopper established themselves in L.A. as the Jazz Crusaders in the ’60s. The name lost its “Jazz” at the start of the ’70s, at which point the group added guitar ringer Larry Carlton and established their tasty blend of wide-lapel jazz, funk, pop, rock, gospel, and soul. Crusaders 1 has the badly titled but deathlessly hummable hit “Put It Where You Want It,” which should have been the theme song for every ’70s sitcom except Taxi. It’ll sit well with fans of Washington’s “Leroy and Lanisha.” The group has lots of other great tracks, several of them collected on The Crusaders’ Finest Hour, which includes 14 bonus seconds.
Matched only by Ellington for longevity of innovation, Miles Davis was still breaking new paths at an age when it’s appropriate to spend much of your time regretting pivotal failures while looking for your keys. A few chronological peaks: The breezy but substantial experiments Davis pursued in 1949 and ’50 with Gil Evans and others can be collected on single albums, usually called The Birth of the Cool. Of the series of hard-bop albums of the fifties, Cookin’ is my favorite. I probably needn’t alert you to Kind of Blue, the continuously bestselling masterpiece dominated by modal explorations and askew blues. Of the quintet albums Davis made with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams, I most cherish Miles Smiles, which in fact isn’t smiley, or frowning, or straight-faced. Washington fans, however, might want to start with electric Miles, the often brilliantly edited fusion classics the trumpeter made with a rotating group of young musicians and producer Ted Macero starting in the late ’60s. Of these, In a Silent Way is the most beautiful and inexhaustible. Washington has clearly absorbed it, and a lilting Heaven and Earth tune, “Connections,” connects specifically to one of In a Silent Way’s central melodies. Were I stranded on the proverbial desert island with just two albums, I’d be happy enough with In a Silent Way and any good collection of chanteys that really get into the finer points of boat building. A Tribute to Jack Johnson has John McLaughlin’s most burnin’ guitar. Third place in my electric Miles ranking is 1974’s Get Up with It, highlighted by “He Loved Him Madly,” an ambient and enveloping 30-minute tribute to Duke Ellington crammed against audiophile mandates on a single LP side.
The Epic ’s third disc includes a treatment of “Cherokee,” the Ray Noble–penned jazz standard that served as a breakthrough vehicle for Charlie Parker’s chromaticism. In Washington’s arrangement, guided by Patrice Quinn’s vocals, the tune takes on a sweet, wistful cast borrowed from late ’60s R&B instrumental hits such as Young-Holt Unlimited’s “Soulful Strut.” It’s a counterintuitive but apt setting for the lyric’s summertime nostalgia. A similar juxtaposition of eras and harmonies can be heard on the Robert Glasper Experiment’s reworking of “Afro Blue,” the Mongo Santamaria tune separately recorded by Abbey Lincoln (see below) and John Coltrane. In Glasper’s reading, featuring languid vocals by Erykah Badu, the song is given a hip-hop beat and a warm reharmonization enriched by a descending flute hook and lots of gospel-soul licks and grace notes. For that cover and other mixed-genre collaborations, check out Black Radio. The four-sided Double Booked documents Glasper’s relaxed confidence both with his trio and with the hybridic Experiment.
The singer, activist, and actor made important contributions to a few ‘60s albums by Max Roach (see below) that can be seen as antecedents to Washington’s work. An unmistakable singer, Lincoln isn’t constantly pitch perfect but she’s always involving, particularly on her 1959 triumph, Abbey Is Blue. Among ’50s vocal concept albums about melancholy, that album is equal to Sinatra’s Only the Lonely, though Lincoln wisely (because life isn’t all bad) ends with the sprightly “Long as You’re Living.” Blue has just one Lincoln original, the great blues “Let Up,” but on later albums she devoted more space to her own songs. You Gotta Pay the Band, from 1991, has the ought-to-be-a-standard title song and other Lincoln songs, plus some of the last recordings by the lyrical tenor saxophonist Stan Getz.
Along with Kenny Clarke, Roach led the drumming revolution of the bebop and postbop eras, moving the pulse from the kick drum to the ride cymbal, dropping perfect rhythm bombs, and getting surprising and tuneful sounds from his kit, whose tom-tom was tuned unusually high. His ’50s sides with the trumpeter Clifford Brown are among that decade’s finest. If you’re lingering in that era, you’ll also want to hear him on Sonny Rollins’s immodestly but appropriately named Saxophone Colossus. Roach was also a pioneer in explicitly incorporating Civil Rights activism into jazz composition, and Washington fans might first want to check out We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, a 1960 landmark of long-form jazz narrative and protest. It’s Time, from a few years later, employs choral arrangements, setting another early precedent for Washington’s work.
Through his leadership of the Pan-Afrikan People’s Arkestra and other endeavors, the pianist, community leader, activist, and composer Horace Tapscott, who died in 1999, helped establish the L.A. jazz scene that nurtured Washington, along with Washington’s father, Rickey, also a musician. In the liner notes to Tapscott’s final album, Thoughts of Dar es Salaam, the pianist summarized his mission to critic Francis Davis: “The music that has come out of black communities in the United States … deserves to be appreciated in the same way that the European musical tradition is. For that to happen, the most important thing is for it to be appreciated within its own community. It needs to have a steady presence in the day-to-day lives of the people in the neighborhoods.” By keeping his focus on noncommercial projects pursued with young musicians in L.A., Tapscott limited his international presence, but he nonetheless attracted a loyal cult. (A figurative cult.) His admirers today include the pianist Vijay Iyer (by the way, if you want to dance to jazz, turn up the Iyer Trio’s version of M.I.A.’s “Galang”). Nimbus West Records put out many Tapscott records with and without the People’s Arkestra. I’ve never found one by bin-browsing but some can be bought or accessed online. Dar es Salaam, mentioned above, is a rightly celebrated trio date with Ray Drummond and Billy Hart.
David S. Ware
On Surrendered, released in 2000, David S. Ware recorded a tune by fellow tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd, who in ’67 scored a countercultural smash with Forest Flower, recorded live with a quartet including a young Keith Jarrett. In the liner notes to Surrendered, cut by the quartet of Ware with Matthew Shipp, William Parker, and Guillermo E. Brown, the leader spoke to David Fricke about the unusual connection Lloyd made with the rock set: “Charles Lloyd—he was the king of that. Nobody reached that level, with that kind of audience, like he did. … I would like to see this band in the same position. I would love to open that box again. That energy, that potential—it’s just sitting there going to waste.” Columbia Records might have had similar hopes, and Ware, who died in 2012, did make quite a few fans outside jazz circles. But the massive Lloyd-like crossover he hoped for wasn’t really approached until Washington’s breakthrough. If you’re particularly turned on by Washington’s extended blowing and upper-register climaxes, you need to dig into Ware, a thrillingly intense virtuoso whose often note-teeming improvisations coaxed sounds and intervals that many other sax players wouldn’t find possible or desirable. Surrendered atypically leans toward the mainstream but doesn’t feel hemmed in; it’s not his best but might be a good place to start. The earlier Third Ear Recitation is fantastic but bracing from the start of its rake (sorry) through “Autumn Leaves.” Speaking of interpretations, Go See the World has a version of “The Way We Were” with all misty, water-colored memories rubbed out, preceded by a wonderfully lurching, Eric Dolphy–like original called “Logistic.” I know Washington’s devotees aren’t deterred by length, so I’ll also steer you to my favorite, Live in the World, an often ecstatic three-CD collection of live shows from 1998 and 2003.
Anyway, happy listening. Another way to further explore jazz, of course, is to turn up at the several intimate Twin Cities clubs and venues where local and national jazz artists and associated improvisers are routinely or occasionally booked.
With: Butcher Brown
Where: Palace Theatre
When: 7 p.m. Thurs. Nov. 1
Tickets: 18+; $30-$50; more info here