Last night the Red Bull Music Academy Festival brought together a rare set of performances that traced the musical lineages of spiritual jazz. From a circular stage built in the center of the Greenpoint Terminal–an empty industrial warehouse at the heart of Brooklyn’s riverside “forgotten city”–the audience gathered and was surrounded by a concentric array of hi-fi tower speakers, liquid ink projections and Nag Champa.
The night began with the masterfully conducted chaos of Sun Ra’s Arkestra seizing the stage dressed in their shining futuristic robes and setting the controls immediately for the heart of the sun. Within two minutes the show had already entered a place that felt almost frightfully alien, the mostly younger crowd thrown into a steady state of acclimation that closely followed the improvisational currents. The band drove further and further out into reed-blasting fits before centering itself again on a theme or groove to assert that space is (still) the place.
The frantic energy and mass polyphony of the Arkestra finally landed in the low lights and straight, lyrical playing from Pharaoh Sanders, who followed with a sweet Love Supreme level romance, warmth and softness. Back from the panic of space, the music traveled someplace almost equally as far and foreign but now only in its proximity to the human. Sanders felt like a perfectly preserved romance somehow transported from another time.
His ensemble was tight–ritzy even–and he let the group sustain long sections of rhythm (often with no solos) as he rested and incited the crowd to repeat the words “the power of God,” chanting into the bell of his horn.
There could be no better way to prepare for the music of Kamasi Washington, the young saxophonist from L.A. who debuted last year with his triple LP The Epic. Kamasi continues the conversation from a present tense that is marked by fierce agility and playfulness with elements of prog, funk, hip-hop and math rock.
A newer unreleased piece seemed slyly at play with the digital–massive shifting blocks of ever-changing tonal centers, mechanically rising arpeggiations set against flawlessly sorted, stacked and executed polyrhythms. The perfection seems effortless, but it’s hardly the point. Kamasi and his brass section often follow in choir-like unison with singer Patrice Quinn echoing back to the spiritual imperatives chanted earlier by the Arkestra and Sanders.