At the Greek Theatre, Kamasi Washington and Herbie Hancock maintain urgency, relevance of jazz

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After listening to Herbie Hancock and Kamasi Washington live, you’ll inevitably need a good smoke.

There’s something highly erotic about jazz to begin with. It’s rhythmic, gliding from rough grittiness to gentle valleys of passion.

The very best of the medium — its particular knack for wholly transporting both the listener and the act, remarkably, as a form of shared introspection between the band members and the audience — was on full display Friday at the Hearst Greek Theatre as masters of the craft, Washington and Hancock, took to the stage to show us all how it’s done.

Co-headlining with Hancock, Washington opened with a question: “We’re about to come together and go on a journey. Y’all ready for that?” he boomed.

Washington’s ensemble wasn’t small, but with solos afforded to most every member of it, it was a proven tour de force. Washington introduced each member: “On drums,” Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr.; “on keys,” Cameron Graves; “on bass,” Miles Mosley (whose original “Abraham” opened Washington’s set). Not to mention Ryan Porter on the trombone, Patrice Quinn on vocals and, touchingly, on the soprano sax, “the man that taught me everything I know: My dad, Mr. Rickey Washington. Pops.”

There was a coherence and seamlessness to the musical dialogue during Washington’s set that spoke to countless hours of practice and a genuine understanding of the musical frequencies between members (some of whom have played together since high school). From “Will You Sing” and “Fists of Fury,” both off of the 2018 album Heaven and Earth, to “Truth” from the 2017 album Harmony of Difference, each individual player brought a unique flavor to the mixing pot, creating a mouthwatering concoction.

By the time Hancock made his way onstage, Washington and his crew had already drawn the amphitheater into a lightheaded revelry. Perhaps sensing the happy calm of those gathered, Hancock looked out at the crowd with a knowing grin and commented, “Let’s see what we can do, okay?” before sitting down at the synthesizer to work a magic some 60 odd years in the making.

Hancock is the grandfather-supreme of modern experimental jazz, having pioneered a distinctive electronic, synth-led sound without sacrificing the more traditional elements, such as the classical piano.

Such innovation was apparent here — it was difficult to compartmentalize Hancock’s set in the segmented bins that mark the different songs in his recorded material. These categorizations are paradigms in their own right, as he and his group (drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, bassist James Genus, guitarist Lionel Loueke, alto sax player Terrace Martin, to name a few) demonstrated. Although some of Hancock’s most renowned pieces were recognizable (among them “Chameleon” and “Actual Proof,” both released in 1974), it was apparent that the art of jazz itself is much more than such divisions. It’s a stream of raw emotion. It’s poetry.

The set was captivating in a nerve-tingling, mouth-hanging-shape sort of way; you didn’t realize how still you’d been sitting or that the night had become chilly until brief interims between 10-minute-plus-long numbers.

Along with the universality of the instrumental dialogue (which was abstract enough for, well, anybody to impress and relate their own experiences to it) sang and played young prodigal flutist and vocalist, Berkeley-raised Elena Pinderhughes. It was a complement to one of Hancock’s trademark sounds — synth-produced clicking, popping, grumbling and beeping that so resemble the human voice that they blur the boundary between singer and instrument.

The set illustrated in stunning acuity the potentials of jazz to exist as music played for the people — all the people. It’s a call for change, to come together, to demand that our common humanity and rights be recognized — both Hancock and Williams acknowledged as much. “I don’t gotta look like you to love you … And I love you. All of you,” Washington proclaimed, words to which the devotion of his unparalleled and thunderous sax-playing seemed to pay testament. Hancock delivered a similar call for unity: “We’re all on this boat called earth together,” he said. “Let’s save the planet,” he implored us.

In the ecstasy of musical cohesion that was the night, despair lifted and hope prevailed. The act of overcoming even the most weighty of fears felt possible. Attendees stumbled out of the Greek Theatre grinning, loopy with joy and the sweetness of possibility. And all craving a cigarette.

Highlights of the set: “Will You Sing”, “Chameleon”, “Actual Proof”

 

Contact Ryan Tuozzolo at [email protected].