The relatively new Mission Ballroom hosted two living titans of jazz on August 14, 2019 when Herbie Hancock headlined with Kamasi Washington opening. Hancock has been an innovator in the genre and an influence on plenty of other styles of music going back to at the 1960s as a genre-bending genius whose contribution to other people’s music and his own band leading has expanded what jazz can be and sound like and look like. Washington has long established himself as a choice player in modern R&B, hip-hop, jazz and funk in his own right including turns on the last two Kendrick Lamar albums. Hancock the piano wizard, and Washington a brilliant sax player. The room proved itself apt for letting both musicians and their players shine through impeccable sound, something that isn’t the case with a lot of rooms of comparable size.
Washington’s band looked almost tranquil when it performed but if expressions speaks volumes and listening and trusting collective musical instincts is the telepathy of music this group took us through a soul stirring journey. Playing select songs from across Washington’s repertoire, the band’s flow of feeling and expression thereof through its creative chemistry demonstrated that this was a living music that invited you in for the experience of what went behind the writing of the songs beyond the clearly masterful arrangements that were open enough for collective orchestration. The raw power of the music was heartbreaking. You heard the sorrow, the pain, the struggle, the grace in the face of adversity and the urgency of wondering when things would finally be better in the world. Without many words excepting “Fists of Fury” and other pieces with lyrics the group conjured an elegantly yet passionately articulated sense of people hurting from a lifetime, generations, of oppression. The weight of it, of not being taken seriously as a human, not being valued for contributing to culture or society but being barred from doing so in so many ways. The disenfranchisement that cuts deep and affects your psyche. But Washington’s music also brought out the beauty of the underlying knowledge that things don’t have to remain this way if we have the will to cast it off even if that will take a daunting level of work and the willingness of people to change. The music offered no solutions, no solace while also not sitting deep in despair. It was a channeling of that soul crushing sadness into something that couldn’t help but affect you and bring you to tears.
Herbie Hancock seemed to be in high spirits when his own group took the stage and performed music from a broad spectrum of his career including choice cuts from his 1973 landmark Head Hunters, 1974’s Thrust and 1978’s Sunlight with a trip back to 1964 and “Cantaloupe Island.” Hancock told us he’d played Boulder and Denver many times and had a certain affection for the now defunct Tulagi’s in Boulder. When Hancock asked the crowd, “Are you ready for some weird stuff?” the band ably delivered with a psychedelic funk festooned with a maximalist improv groove on the core of the established songs like “Actual Proof” and “Chameleon.” When the group went into “Cantaloupe Island” it got a modern flavor.
Lionel Loueke played like a space alien visiting to play in this band and laying down some of the most out guitar licks anyone is likely to on anyone’s tour now. Hancock told us something like how he’s played with the top ten drummers but that Vinnie Colaiuta was in the top echelon of even those players and he lived up to those words. James Genus held down the low end with an elegant flow of bass on loan from Saturday Night Live. But perhaps surprising was Terrence Martin playing not only keyboards but impressive sax chops to boot. Having produced the most recent two Kendrick Lamar albums we came to find out he’ll be working with Hancock soon on the pianists next record. The sheer joy of Hancock’s playing and his humor and chemistry with the band was riveting and vital.
At the end of the set, following “Cantaloupe Island,” Hancock and company performed a bit of “Rockit” including his signature keytar, brought out earlier in the set, and for the closing jam Washington came out with members of his own band and it seemed like everyone was on the same page, sharing the same spirit and showcasing some of of the best of what has been produced in American culture over the last six decades and not a passing of the torch so much as an acknowledgment of one classic master for the talent of a relative newcomer and vice versa as people who have helped make our world seem more compassionate and not functionally drab.