The typical Marymoor Park concert schedule isn't exactly swarming with avant-garde musicians. Granted, few people look to outdoor summer concerts for their adventurous-music fixes. Still, the artists Marymoor Park books lean toward innocuous safe bets (this year's lineup includes Lionel Richie, Sublime with Rome, and Lord Huron) and arena-filling "alternative" acts (the National, Death Cab for Cutie, Father John Misty). So it's a shock to see 79-year-old jazz legend Herbie Hancock and rising fusion saxophonist Kamasi Washington sharing a stage at the 5,000-capacity Redmond venue. This pairing spotlights jazz's storied recent past and its resurgent present.
Washington burst into the public consciousness in 2015 with The Epic, a title that did not falsely advertise. This triple album thrust the Los Angeles–based composer/arranger into the forefront of jazz's rejuvenating 2010s movement and accrued enough major media coverage to make fans of the sonic vanguard and casual music consumers take note.
While Washington's music is not revolutionary, it is an ambitious rehabilitation of fusion at its most soaring and extravagantly melodious. He is assiduously and reverently building on past glories of fusion and astral jazz—which has accounted for some of the most sublime recordings in music history.
I recently spent 10 days interviewing jazz-fusion iconoclast Joe Gallivan for a possible book-length biography. The drummer for legendary avant-fusion unit Love Cry Want and former bandmate of Eric Dolphy and Mr. Hancock himself slammed Washington for not doing anything that hadn't been done more interestingly by more venerable players in this vein.
You can interpret that opinion as an older musician screaming at a youngster to get off his lawn, but there's a grain of truth to Gallivan's crankiness. Yes, Washington may not be John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, or Joe Henderson (yet), but he deserves respect for striving to reach their Olympian heights in an age of music-biz underachievement. I for one appreciate an artist who guns for overachievement and risks being called out as "indulgent." And Washington has the chops (and dope threads) to match his inspirations' importance in the not-too-distant future.
Sure, sometimes Washington needs a producer who will rein in his long-winded tendencies and tighten his loose compositional strategies; 2018 sophomore LP Heaven and Earth sprawls over 10 sides of vinyl. But better to err on the side of excess than to adhere to some vague notion of the inherent goodness of concision and straightforwardness. As a corollary, if your music infuriates jazz purists (not that Gallivan is one), it's probably on the righteous path.
As with many of jazz's new wave of youthful lions—Thundercat, Ben LaMar Gay, Makaya McCraven, BADBADNOTGOOD, Sons of Kemet and other idiosyncratic mavericks from London—Washington is wowing large crowds and exciting critics without watering down fusion's instrumental swagger, rhythmic complexity, or textural nuances. But he's doing it on a larger scale than his peers are.
Washington's dominant mode is soaring uplift, a spiritualized efflorescence that's harnessed by a big band whose intense passion matches their instrumental fluency. For listeners of a certain age, Washington and company's heroically sweeping pieces will trigger thoughts of the transcendent effusions of Sun Ra Arkestra and Art Ensemble of Chicago. Which isn't to say Washington doesn't occasionally tilt his group into the more song-based R&B and funk, as demonstrated by "Testify" and "Street Fighter Mas." But if current trends hold, it's fairly certain that someday Washington's A Love Supreme or "The Creator Has a Master Plan" will come.
Herbie Hancock is the rare jazz musician who's adapted and evolved with the times—for about five decades, remarkably. True, not every stylistic permutation of his career has merited inclusion in the pantheon, but you can't fault his inquisitive questing for new forms and concepts. Like his former bandmate and fellow icon Miles Davis, Hancock could've played it conservatively at many stages of his life, but this gear-obsessed technophile, virtuoso keyboardist, and gifted composer more often chose change over stasis, with a high ratio of hits to misses.
Hancock tore through the 1960s, eloquently shaping the post-bop soundscape both as a solo artist and as a sideman for Miles Davis's crucial quintet, Bobby Hutcherson, Wayne Shorter, and many others. During this time, Hancock was a prodigious composer of elegant melodies and deft rhythms.
He would return to Davis's group after being let go in 1968 to help the trumpeter create paradigm-shifting fusion opuses such as In a Silent Way, A Tribute to Jack Johnson, and On the Corner. Hancock also had a nice side hustle scoring Bill Cosby's Fat Albert TV-cartoon series and the film Blow-Up. For his 1960s output alone, he should be classified as a hall of famer, but he was just getting started.
In the 1970s, he furthered his interest in synthesizers' capacity for generating adventurous textures, enlisting circuitry magus Dr. Patrick Gleeson to facilitate his vision, as exemplified by the 1972 LP Sextant, an otherworldly mind-blower that displays Hancock's most outward-bound tendencies.
Another high point from Hancock's absurdly fertile 1970s output is Crossings, an alternate-reality Bitches Brew full of enigmatic space-outs that stretch the concept of jazz composition to cosmic dimensions. With 1973's Head Hunters, 1974's Thrust, and 1975's Man-Child, Hancock and his cohorts harnessed their formidable skills to forge some of the funkiest and most byzantine cuts of a very funky decade. These badasses were playing four-dimensional chess in a field where most were engaged in checkers. The records exerted a major force on hiphop and trip-hop producers, as well.
On 1983's Future Shock, Hancock—with help from NYC super-producers Bill Laswell and Michael Beinhorn, and turntablist Grand Mixer D.ST—thrust himself into the emergent electro/hiphop milieu, scoring a surprise hit with the oblongly kinetic, scratch-heavy "Rockit." The album again revealed his bold instincts for fresh musical and technological developments. Future Shock represented one of the few examples of an aging jazzer adopting younger folks' genre elements without embarrassing results. On the other hand, his disco forays have aged about as well as leisure suits.
Hancock has spent much of the last 30 years covering other people's music (including A Tribute to Miles and Gershwin's World), a strategy that led to him winning a Grammy in 2008 for River: The Joni Letters, in which he interpreted songs written by jazz-folk goddess Joni Mitchell. But he wasn't through expanding his solo repertoire, digging into punchy acid jazz for 1994's Dis Is da Drum and dabbling with various turn-of-the-millennium electronic-music modes on 2001's Future2Future, which featured cameos by Detroit techno luminary Carl Craig, British drum & bass iconoclast A Guy Called Gerald, and turntablist wiz Rob Swift. These latter two works tempered Hancock's late-career slouch toward conservatism. While his best efforts lie behind him, he remains an engaging live performer, much like fellow elder-statesmen keyboardists McCoy Tyner and Ramsey Lewis.
With Washington on the ascendant and the nearly octogenarian Hancock showing only minor signs of decline, this joint tour should provide exceptional sonic fireworks. Think of it as an interesting, intergenerational clash—that of a young gun vitally reviving some of jazz's most powerful tropes and an eclectic legend flaunting a stunning panoply of game-changing styles... in Redmond, of all places.