This year’s NYC Red Bull Music Academy hosted several outstanding showcases, but the month-long show series surely reached its climax during RBMA’s Spiritual Jazz event, which featured rising American jazz legend and Brainfeeder artist Kamasi Washington, sax legend Pharaoh Sanders and the inimitable Sun Ra Arkestra. The event was thrown at the Brooklyn Terminal Warehouse in Greenpoint, and the stage–which was circular and permitted 360-degree audience access–was positioned directly in the middle of the massive space.
I’ve had a few weeks to recoil from the sheer magnitude and intensity of the Spiritual Jazz show. The day after I had all four of my wisdom teeth extracted, so the following weeks were too foggy from the pain and percocets for me to responsibly undergo writing this review. But despite the unfortunate circumstances which delayed this piece, I’m grateful for the time I’ve had to ruminate over the things I saw and heard on the evening of May 8. Memories of that night are stark, lucid, almost electric in my mind, possibly because I dosed myself with acid four hours before the show, but probably because the music was that good.
The Sun Ra Arkestra graced the stage just after 8pm as the night’s opening act: a dozen or so middle-aged and elderly colored men clad in sequined, brightly hued robes. The Arkestra was led by alto saxophonist and Great Maestro Marshall Allen, who was 91 years-old during the performance and just turned 92 today. Although old, his energy and audacity often took the audience by surprise.
At Allen’s side was Tara Middleton, a young, Afro’d powerhouse vocalist who gave new life to Sun Ra’s colorful lyrics. The Arkestra’s set was a surreal experience, marked by boisterous instances of explosive, cacophonous, polyrhythmic noise. But the most exceptional moments occurred when the band reached for those whole, pristine, perfectly rounded melodies, the kind that make your vision go blurry. The Sun Ra Arkestra moseyed off the stage while playing/chanting “Interplanetary Music.”
The legendary, 75 year-old tenor saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders took the stage with a drummer, bassist and piano player for a tight, sober ensemble. They ran through several Sanders standards like “The Creator Has A Master Plan,” briskly and professionally, while the frontman stayed planted firmly in the middle of the stage. The musician put on a marvelous show, but for all his efforts he failed to surpass the power of the two acts he was sandwiched between.
The evening’s sole contemporary act–Kamasi Washington’s seven-piece ensemble–took the stage last and played until just before midnight. They were also the only act to take full advantage of the 360-degree stage. Each musician was spaced out along the perimeter of the stage with their backs to the audience, facing inward toward one another. It was strange thing to witness. Despite access to all sides of the stage, an ideal vantage point to see all the players from the audience seemed nonexistent. As a result, the experience of viewing the performance felt private (voyeuristic, even), as if the audience was collectively intruding upon something we weren’t necessarily meant to see or hear.
Kamasi and his band, which featured two drum kits, ran through selections from his debut double album, The Epic, like “Malcolm’s Theme,” “Re Run,” and “Miss Understanding.” Between tracks he introduced the band on a personal, individual level, taking the time to articulate fond anecdotes about a few players in his band, cats he’s known since grade school.
The tenor sax player also unveiled a few new songs, to be featured on his forthcoming second LP. One such song, “End Of Corporatism,” written and led by piano player Cameron Grave, gave a clear, enthralling glimpse into the evolution of Kamasi’s sound. It was a frenzied, calamitous, deeply spiritual jazz song that sounded at once of the future and from the past, an awe-inspiring theme that threatened to swallow you whole with its unyielding conviction. “THAT WAS THE BEST SONG. EVER!” yelled someone close behind me after the song reached its close. Homeboy was right.
Stream Kamasi Washington’s The Epic below.