Despite what some music snobs would say, jazz, the genre deemed “America’s classical music” is not dead. The idea you might have of jazz is Louis Armstrong and his trumpet, John Coltrane, Herbie Mann or perhaps Charlie Parker, but jazz didn’t end there. Instead, it has been a force of nature all along, from the innovative revival of the ‘70s and ‘80s to the newest stars of our modern age. Herbie Hancock and Kamasi Washington represent those two newer faces of jazz perfectly, with the intensity and lightness of all of the greats that came before. Their joint performance at the newly-renamed Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre in Detroit proved as much, as their respective shows took the idea of jazz to new heights in a new age.
Kamasi Washington is a force to be reckoned with, in the most simplest of terms. A rising star in the modern music scene, the saxophonist and composer has pushed the boundaries of music in every genre available to him, imbuing the creativity of his jazz foundations into everything he touches. He’s larger than life in person, and as Washington stood on the half-shell stage of the Aretha last Thursday, he radiated strength and beauty. Alongside a band of consummate performers in their own right, including powerhouse jazz vocalist Patrice Quinn, Washington’s show was revelatory, each song from his recently released record Heaven and Earth fading into the next with untouchable ease. The audience had no way of knowing where one instrument ended and the following one began, as the saxophonist and his band wove stunning soundscapes that echoed throughout the amphitheatre. This is how jazz really should be — music, yes, but above all, an experience.
The combination of Washington’s prolific saxophone performance and the intensity of Quinn’s vocal acrobatics and chants made for a show to remember. Her movements were as graceful as a ballerina, with the added spark of her reactions to each change in the rhythm. As amazing as watching Washington play his heart out was, Quinn was just as, if not more entertaining. Nonetheless, each musician on the stage was at their peak during the hour-long set. Washington’s tall, red-caftaned form guided them through each song, his command of the audience’s attention like that of a megachurch preacher.
Then, came Herbie. Ascending the stage’s steps, the boats anchored in the Detroit river behind the amphitheatre’s stage honked and applauded just as loud as the seated crowd. Despite Hancock’s somewhat advanced age, he was as animated and spry as a teenager would have been, greeting the audience with a bounce in his step and a mischievous smile on his face. Sitting down at his keyboard, the pianist leaned toward the edge of the stage.
“Y’all ready for some weird shit?” he asked, and everyone in the Aretha erupted into deafening applause. Yes, we certainly were ready for some weird shit: Hancock’s weirdness is what put him on the map, and makes him a jazz legend today.
Armed with some stylish sneaks, R2-D2 printed socks, a vocoder and a whole lotta soul, Hancock began his set by introducing the esteemed members of his band. Producer of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, incredible tenor saxophonist and keyboardist Terrace Martin; SNL bassist James Genus; Beninese guitarist and vocalist Lionel Loueke and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta (who had his own round of applause, complete with signs) joined Hancock at the Aretha that night, a star-studded team playing on another level. As they began the set, everyone in the venue and on the water was immediately taken to another place. Hancock’s bizarrely beautiful keyboard magic melded with the band’s sound to turn the amphitheatre into a spaceship, traversing a musical landscape of unknown origin.
This continued for about an hour longer, and then, Herbie pulled out a keytar. It was the only thing that could have drawn an already elated crowd even deeper into the performance, but Hancock’s electric talent and the power of his band brought the show to an even higher plane. They played several songs from the pianist’s acclaimed group Headhunters, to great response from the audience. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many old guys in perfectly laid suits stand up and dance around, but that’s just the effect Hancock has. The music he makes isn’t easy to understand, but it makes you move, think and laugh all at the same time.
Near the end of the set, Washington and his band joined Hancock on stage for a final jam that brought the house down. The crowd left their seats and huddled toward the platform, moving with each other in a happy frenzy of music. Hancock, still carrying his keytar, jaunted back and forth between each side of the stage, making sure to play to every angle of his excited fanbase there that night.
When I imagined this show, I imagined something very different than what happened. In my mind, people would sit, nod their heads and enjoy the ride. Instead, it became something different altogether, a beautiful frenzy of musical talent and monumental presence brought together by two legends of sound.