San Francisco’s Noise Pop Festival has been well known for packing hordes of genres and artists into their lineup, but rarely have they picked a collection of artists that are so solidly categorized as jazz musicians before anything else. True to the latter half of its name, the festival tends to want to pick acts that have those hooks and rhythms which you want to sing or dance along to with a common familiarity, or even are comfortable with hearing on the radio. There are, of course, certain acts (like seminal hardcore favorites Drive Like Jehu this year, or Yoko Ono a few years back) that defy such conventions, but you can generally bet on finding the bands to be less on the blatantly esoteric side of things. Thus, it was a bit of a risk throwing some jazz artists into the mix; however, it absolutely paid off, as all four shows (spread across two nights, two artists, and two venues) sold out, weeks in advance, and the two performers — elecronic-wizard-plus-jazz-quartet Kneedelus, and newly-Grammy’d tenor sax master Kamasi Washington — definitely did not disappoint.
Though confined to the 150-person capacity space known as the Joe Henderson Lab, the “nu-jazz supergroup” collectively known as Kneedelus (American fusion band Kneebody and electronic music producer Daedelus) absolutely shook the walls with their thunderous grooves. Blending an intriguing, always-on-the-move mixture of free jazz, jungle rhythms, and ever-evolving progressive tunes, the men of Kneedelus did not let the dark space tamper their sound in the slightest, giving life to one intricate composition after another. Most fascinating to watch was drummer Nate Wood, who alternated effortlessly from steady rhythms and grooves to lightning-fast fusillades of strikes, his concentration never wavering; his intensity contrasted marvelously with the stoic but precise movements of horn players Shane Endsley (trumpet) and Ben Wendel (tenor sax). With Daedelus floating behind with a constant flow of ethereal synths, it was hard to tell when one piece became another; short, nervous quips from bassist Kaveh Rastegar were the only hints of new songs and their titles, and gave some breathing room between the explosive bursts of musicianship.
Straying a bit from common definitions of “traditional jazz” was the most entertaining part of Kneedelus’ performance. A song could start with the simplest form — a warbling loop, a bass groove, the gentle drone of brass — and then evolve into a frenzied explosion, a burst of sound not so much cacophonous as it was heavily layered with immense detail. It was hard to tell where Daedelus’ constructions ended and Kneebody’s playing took over, as it was when things moved in the opposite direction. The crowd, unsure at first despite their excitement to see the group, got into an enthusiastic groove during the bouncier parts of each song, moving to a calm, content sway as each one drew to a close. Despite their short set, Kneedelus returned for one dynamite encore, and then departed from the stage — where they would later return, an hour later, to knock yet another crowd off their feet for their late performance.
By contrast, Kamasi Washington’s brand of performance was all about one thing: the recognition of artists, sounds, and worlds that had helped shaped the famous sounds of jazz, funk and soul, and sprawling, monstrous pieces dedicated to this historic research. The rich sounds of West Coast jazz — fevered low-end rhythm, shimmering keyboard notes, and the triumphant blast of trombone and saxophone — burst magnificently against the walls of The Independent, where Washington’s presence had summoned two performances’ worth of rabid fans for several solid hours of music across two sets on a Thursday night. In contrast to Kneedelus, who tossed the hot potato of a musical spotlight from member to member as quickly as their songs’ textures shifted, Washington and his band, The Next Step, gracefully traded solo after dizzying solo to showcase the stunning array of talent that poured forth from each musician. Whether it was the nimble-footed Miles Mosley grooving away on his upright bass, the passionate Patrice Quinn belting out her glorious vocals, or even Washington himself on his tenor sax, each performer was granted numerous opportunities to take the spotlight — and they did so with face-melting gusto.
Like Kneedelus, Washington and his band had a set that was massive in scope though short in actual song count, but with each piece driving well past the ten-minute mark, this meant no compromises in quality of performance. Washington also told numerous anecdotes about the members of his band, particularly his two drummers — one of whom (Ronald Bruner) he grew up with, who took up drums after watching Washington play, and eventually overtook his mentor with astonishing speed. For the latter half of the show, the group was joined by Kamasi’s father, Rickey Washington, who took up flute and clarinet duties, and was as masterful in his performance as he was reserved in his mannerisms. Before the penultimate “Final Thought”, Washington and his other players passed the torch to Bruner, second drummer Tony Austin, and Mosley on bass, who proceeded to deliver a trio of back-and-forth solos that could only be described as astonishing in their speed and intensity.
I rarely find modern jazz records that I keep on repeat for weeks at a time, so I was pleasantly surprised to be able to experience two of the bands from that scene that I have recently come to enjoy on the regular. Each show was wildly impressive, for different reasons; Washington and The Next Step were all about soulful grooves and stunning, passionate spotlights of musicianship, whereas Kneedelus was determined to eschew any concrete definitions of jazz, prog or fusion, while simultaneously delivering all of those (and more) in a set of impressive tunes. Both were fantastic to see in a live setting, filling onlookers with a sense of intensity and wonder, a sensation rarely experienced so vividly from simply watching musicians performing their craft. As word will travel fast, be sure to book your calendar for their next appearances — these are two bands that you definitely will want to have your mind blown by.
All photos © 2016 Jonathan Pirro.