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SHOW REVIEW: RBMA Shines Light on Generations of Spiritual Jazz

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When Red Bull Music Academy released the lineup for their New York Festival, which is a month-long event series of shows, raves, talks, and more, this one really stuck out: a night of spiritual jazz with Sun Ra Arkestra, Pharoah Sanders, and Kamasi Washington.

Sun Ra Arkestra being one of the longest running jazz institutions ever, led by 91 year-old Marshall Allan, and perhaps the first group to inject a spiritual component into a typically stuffy genre.

Pharoah Sanders being known as the ‘son’ of free jazz (whereas John Coltrane acts as the ‘father’ and Albert Ayler act as the ‘ghost’ to complete the biblical metaphor), and generally recognized as one of the great saxophone players of all time.

And Kamasi Washinton, who has been dubbed as ‘jazz savior’ to mixed reviews, earning crossover appeal with last year’s Brainfeeder release The Epic along with spots at Bonnaroo, Electric Forest, Red Rocks, etc.

Located inside of massive terminal in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Red Bull Music Academy transformed the space into a trippy paradise, with fog, incense, lights, live visuals, and a 360-degree stage set up. It didn’t feel much like anything that’s normally associated with jazz events. It was socially casual, visually vibrant, and fully immersive.

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Musically, the evening began with Sun Ra Arkestra, the institution left behind by pianist Sun Ra. Focusing on their vocal tunes meant starting out with “Interplanetary Music,” which perhaps doubled as a thesis for the entire night’s musical programming. Marshall Allen may be inching in on 100 years-old, but he still leads the Arkestra with great energy, dictating the sometimes claustrophobic sounds with an ear that is obviously trained to make sense of the chaos.

Pharoah Sanders followed in spectacular form. For 75 years-old, the tenor saxophone player is insanely good. After catching him at Birdland last month, we were blown away, and he lived up to his reputation for Red Bull. “Ole” knocked the socks off the entire crowd, and hearing ~1000 people respond to Sanders’ chants was worth the price of admission in itself. When he followed up with “Naima,” “Colors,” and “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” it was priceless. The band sounded incredible with RBMA’s surround sound, and Sanders was in fine form as he danced about the stage.

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The night ended with an artist who is still bidding for a legacy that comes close to Sun Ra’s or Sanders’: Kamasi Washington. A lifetime of playing music is finally paying off for the 35 year-old, who has been receiving mass amounts of acclaim in the worlds of indie, rock, and festivals. The jazz scene, oddly enough, views his sudden rise with a dash of skepticism, but it mostly just seems like grumpy old cats who aren’t into the idea of someone who maybe isn’t reinventing the wheel catching the attention of non-jazz heads with jazz music.

At any rate, watching Kamasi and his band of insanely talented musicians play just feet in front of our eyes is one of the highest musical experiences I’ve achieved, and that comes from somebody who’s spent a (short) lifetime going to shows in critically fashion. The band, who I’ve seen now five times, continues to impress with each show, proving that their versatility is second to none.

Each song sees extremely unique arrangements whenever played. For example, last night’s “Malcom’s Theme” was played to a hard hip hop beat as opposed to the normal, more obscure rhythm of the album version. Kamasi continues to give shine to each member of the band, playing an unreleased track by pianist Cameron Graves called “End of Corporatism,” which was about as intense as Sanders’ “Ole” cover.

Each band, with their own unique styles, put spiritual jazz on one of the highest stages imaginable. This was no small show, and it definitely wasn’t at a tourist-filled supper club. This was, in more ways than one, a truly unique experience that shed light on spiritual jazz’s ancient past, classic era, and present, looking into the future.

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