Apparently the old synagogue on Yesler is a portal to another dimension. At least, that’s what it felt like slipping past household Halloween decorations in the October gloom and into the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute on Wednesday night for a Meow Wolf-esque transformation. The occasion was an hourlong interstellar transmission from Knife Knights, the side project/supergroup composed of Ishamel Butler (Shabazz Palaces, Digable Planets) and Erik Blood (producer extraordinaire), both Stranger Geniuses.
They took the Earshot Jazz Festival stage with able assistance from OCNotes (KEXP’s Sunday Soul), where the three donned chainmail coifs over all black ensembles. Knights they were, not of the roundtable but rather of soulful shoegaze, noisy hip-hop, and spazzy bass.
Like a stripped-down Sun Ra reincarnate, Knife Knights embarked on most songs with sparse, roughneck beats that offered a basic rhythmic foundation on which to build layers of sound, much of it clearly improvised in the best of the jazz tradition. While the duo has a record, last year’s 1 Time Mirage on Sub Pop, those tracks were points of departure, not strict templates. Ambient synths, drowsy keyboards, exploratory bass, occasional bursts of static, layers of echo and reverb, Butler lingering and repeating a single vocalization—“Bout”—like an incantation. Nearly 50 years later, this is the sequel to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.
Co-conspirator Marquetta Miller on vocals smoothed out some of the rougher edges—like OCNotes noodling on guitar in the corner in a way that felt almost entirely out of sync with the rest of the band—with her softer melodies. Alto sax player Darius Jones, who opened the night, also emerged to give “Can’t Draw the Line” a jam session feel.
Stas THEE Boss, host of KEXP’s Street Sounds, took the middle card. Her DJ set, impressively mixed sans headphones, had plenty of people grooving but still glued to their chairs. Langston, for all its charms, is a dry venue that felt too stiff for a get-down DJ set of old-school funk, soul, and hip-hop. When Mtume’s 1983 r&b classic “Juicy Fruit” burst through the air, my companion turned to me wistfully. “I wish I had a blunt.”
Knife Knights finally broke through the stiffness and limbered the joints. On the last song before the encore, the spirit moved an older gentleman who stomped and shuffled his way across the stage. That fit of inspiration was enough to unleash the floodgates after a night of seated performance and during the encore, most of Langston got up to boogie. “Somebody gotta wanna dance, it’s Wednesday night,” riffed Butler, turning the most direct observation into the watchwords of an improvised finale that broke down the barrier between artist and performer. In the end, this was a neighborhood show: a bunch of local artists, who just happen to be nationally touring badass musicians, packing what amounts to a community arts center in a publicly-owned venue.
“This may be a good time to activate those gummy bears you had for dessert,” proffered Earshot director John Gilbreath while introducing Knife Knights, tacitly acknowledging that shit was about to get downright weird. Bookings like these—and last Saturday’s Turning Jewels Into Water at the Town Hall Forum—showcase Earshot’s adventurous side, a willingness to step way outside of jazz standards and into uncharted experimental territory. Keep it up.