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Photo: Mike Kim
Photo: Mike Kim

Kamasi Washington Gives Us Butterflies

Kamasi Washington played Lincoln Theatre Saturday night and, sitting fat and happy in the audience, I had butterflies before he went on.

The opener, RVA-based Butcher Brown and his band, played a jazz and funk set to open, and they were great, but on either side of the Butcher Brown band drum kit, you could see Washington’s two-kit setup bookending the stage, hinting at what we could look forward to.

Washington released his debut record, The Epic, in 2015 (clocking in at just under three hours!), and has since made himself the face of contemporary jazz whether that’s for his contributions to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly or for his own solo material, like The Epic, or his subsequent records Harmony of Difference (2017) and Heaven and Earth (2018).

From the titles of his records, you can tell the man doesn’t shy away from high aspirations and that comes across in his live set. Like on his recordings, the live set is both challenging to listeners and lush. Lush in its melodies and instrumentation and challenging because there are no eight-bar solos and there are no three minute songs.

Onstage, Washington was flanked by vocalist Patrice Quinn, trombonist Ryan Porter, Brandon Coleman on keys, Miles Mosely on upright bass, and drummers Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr, musician Thundercat’s younger brother.

I may have been miffed at first to only see a seven piece band, knowing how orchestral Washington’s recordings can be, but that was soon forgotten. These players are among the very best.

Standouts from the night included a Miles Mosely composition called “Abraham,” which he led on upright bass and soloed over using a bowing technique and a wah-pedal, Brandon Coleman’s solo on “The Space Travelers Lullaby,” Patrice Quinn on “The Rhythm Changes” and the drum “conversation” between Bruner Jr. and Austin.

Onstage, Washington actually referred to “Space Travelers Lullaby” as the “Space Cadets Lullaby” and called Quinn the “queen of all space cadets.”

“To this day, I have no idea how she gets to gigs.”

Watching her onstage, you might have thought the same thing. She only sang on a few tracks and otherwise danced onstage. But her dancing was otherworldly. Imagine an oracle moving and swaying, or imagine a priestess dancing with someone, that someone lacking a body.

Still, my favorite song from the night was “Truth,” the final composition off of Washington’s Harmony of Difference record. One of the things I love about that record is how symphonic it is. The first five tracks feature five different melodies, all of which come back on the final track “Truth” and are played simultaneously. It’s sounds like it could be a cacophony, but it’s so far from it.

“I made Harmony of Difference,” Washington says onstage, “to remind us of just how beautiful we are, and that the difference between us is what makes us great.”

At this point in the set, he really had our ears.

“Diversity among all the people on this planet is not something to be tolerated,” he continued, “it’s something to be celebrated.”

Truth was the metaphor for that message and the night was a celebration of that message. Don’t miss Washington the next time he comes to town.

For more information about Kamasi Washington, go to www.kamasiwashington.com or follow the musician on Instagram at @kamasiwashington, Twitter at @KamasiW or Facebook at @kamasiw.

Photo: Mark Gorman
Photo: Mark Gorman

The District’s Jazz Renaissance

Thirteen years ago, drummer John Heinze played U Street mainstay Velvet Lounge while on tour, and some gravity comes into his voice as he depicts the scene that evening.

“It was a Thursday night and there was no one out on the streets,” he says. “It was a ghost town. And it wasn’t a holiday, it was the dead of summer. There was nothing going on.”

That DC isn’t the one he knows today. After talking to Heinze, now part of funk-with-soul band Aztec Sun, and other local artists, I pieced together that our jazz community is so small that nearly everyone seems to know one another but big enough that you can find shows all over town – if you know which doors to look behind.

The DC jazz scene is undergoing a revitalization spurred by younger musicians committed to keeping the vibrant genre alive. Though the music may seem old-fashioned on first mention, artists like Heinze are finetuning the jazz experience to engage newer generations.

Heinze moved here from Chicago five years ago and quickly became involved in the jazz scene through “musician connecting organization” Flashband and by seeking out open jams. He serves as my introduction to this world, telling me where I should go and on what night – and who I might look to talk to.

When he rattles off suggestions, I struggle to keep up: Gypsy Sally’s, Villain & Saint, Service Bar, Marvin, Sotto, Brixton, Bin 1301…the list goes on. He also mentions neighborhood spot Maddy’s Bar & Grille on Connecticut Avenue, where local sax player Elijah Jamal Balbed hosts weekly sessions.

Balbed has been on the DC jazz and go-go scene since 2005, when he started playing clubs like Twins Jazz at age 15. Four years ago, he started “genre-bending ensemble” the JoGo Project, inspired by his time performing with Chuck Brown.

He tells me the jazz scene is extremely close-knit, and I see what he means. There are faces I recognize at shows from other jams around town. When Balbed’s not hosting sessions at Maddy’s, you can catch him as one of the featured artists at Brixton’s Sunday night jams and at Pearl Street Warehouse for his Southwest Soul Sessions cohosted with drummer Isabelle De Leon.

Spots on Balbed’s short list of favorite spots include Hamilton Live and Blues Alley, but smaller bars and clubs aren’t the only venues promoting DC jazz. The Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage series offers free shows of outstanding quality, and community stalwart the Anacostia Arts Center (AAC) hosts the Second Sundays Jazz series.
Kadija Bangura, the AAC’s marketing manager, says that curator and noted jazz musician Vernard Gray is spearheading the initiative, which includes featuring artists who often fly under the radar.

“We’re looking forward to being introduced to jazz talent that doesn’t receive the same attention from major clubs in the city,” Bangura says.

Because some of our beloved jazz venues have recently closed their doors, the AAC’s continued support is imperative for people in Anacostia and from around the city. The center has created a space for fans to watch younger musicians’ first chance to be in the spotlight, an undeniable asset to the genre and the District as a whole.

“We typically pull fans of jazz music from the community,” Bangura continues. “We provide jazz even as other venues close.”

Balbed and I talked about some of those notable low points – the shuttering of Bohemian Caverns chief among them. The U Street Corridor institution hosted a score of names since its founding in 1926; in fact, the space has remained empty, and you can even see its sad piano roll marquee still on the building. But the saxophonist doesn’t seem too discouraged. He believes the musicians will keep the jazz scene going regardless of any obstacles.

“There have been some down points,” Balbed says. “But even with the venues closing down, the energy of the musicians never dies. Venues will come and go, but as long as the musicians are around, they’ll keep the scene alive.”

Learn more about the JoGo Project at www.jogoproject.com, Aztec Sun at www.aztecsunband.com and Anacostia Arts Center’s upcoming jazz performances at www.anacostiaartscenter.com.

Check out these DC area venues for live jazz.

Bin 1301: 1301 U St. NW, DC; www.bin1301dc.com
Bossa Bistro: 2463 18th St. NW, DC; www.bossaproject.com
Brixton: 901 U St. NW, DC; www.brixtondc.com
Gypsy Sally’s: 3401 K St. NW, DC; www.gypsysallys.com
Maddy’s Bar & Grille: 1726 Connecticut Ave. NW, DC; www.maddysbar.com
Marvin: 2007 14th St. NW, DC; www.marvindc.com
Mr. Henry’s: 601 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, DC; www.mrhenrysdc.com
Service Bar: 926-928 U St. NW, DC; www.servicebardc.com
Sotto: 1610 14th St. NW, DC; www.sottodc.com
Villain & Saint: 7141 Wisconsin Ave. Bethesda, MD; www.villainandsaint.com

big picture

The Big Picture on the Big Screen

When globally renowned jazz clarinetist David Krakauer and his partners set out to create “The Big Picture,” they intended to tell the story of Krakauer’s Jewish heritage as well as a larger story of culture and identity. The idea of reconnecting with Krakauer’s own roots and promoting tolerance of others informs the work, as it has much of Krakauer’s career, but this multimedia performance ties it all together.

“The Big Picture” combines visuals from iconic films with the classic soundtracks reimagined by Krakauer and The 35mm Orchestra. Some of the films are directly related to Judaism, but all were chosen because of their portrayal of the Jewish experience in some form or another, according to Krakauer.

“I believe that by being proud of one’s culture and welcoming other people in, it’s a [message] saying to other people: ‘be proud of your culture and let’s celebrate our differences in a beautiful way,’” says Krakauer. 

The visuals serve as reminders of the iconic stories, which include “Cabaret,” “Life is Beautiful” and other classics.

“I think it helps people remember the movies, both from the music they hear and also little subtle visual triggers. But they’re not narrative visuals, they’re just kind of reveries, kind of meditations on the movies.”

The clarinetist has performed “The Big Picture” in the U.S. and in Europe, but regardless of where and when Krakauer performs his music, the message is always timely. E.g. some of Krakauer’s work with globally renowned Jewish roots band, The Klezmatics, coincided with the fall of the Berlin wall and a new era for Eastern Europe. 

On that experience Krakauer says:

“Coming to Europe in the late 80s/early 90s and playing Jewish music – without waving a flag or getting up on the soapbox – we were making a statement for multiculturalism, for tolerance, for a more inclusive view and that has continued throughout my career ever since.”

This is the same message brought out in “The Big Picture” and it’s one which has been a hallmark of Krakauer’s work no matter who he performs with.

Krakauer and The 35mm Orchestra will bring “The Big Picture” to George Mason University’s Center for the Arts on Friday, March 2 at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $26-$44 and can be purchased online here.

George Mason University Center for the Arts: 4400 University Dr. Fairfax, VA; 703-993-8888; www.cfa.gmu.edu