There aren’t many jazz tours that can fill enough seats to headline Berkeley’s Greek Theater these days. But this Friday night in late August sees a full house at the historic venue on the UC-Berkeley campus. Legendary keyboardist Herbie Hancock is at the top of the bill and rightfully so, for he helped forge the shape of things to come as part of Miles Davis’ trailblazing bands in the 1960s. But saxman and co-headliner Kamasi Washington is no mere opening act, having blazed an impressive trail himself over the past four years that’s made him one of the hottest new stars in the jazz world.
Renowned saxophonist Branford Marsalis asserted earlier this year that Kamasi Washington isn’t really a jazz player per se. Maybe he isn’t in the classic sense of the genre that Marsalis is an undisputed master of. But the 38-year-old saxophonist from Los Angeles is surely doing something right, putting together a high-level band that combines elements of jazz with jam-rock, fusion, and funk to create an intoxicating sound that has been drawing fans from across the popular music spectrum.
When Kamasi played San Francisco’s Warfield Theater last fall, the place was packed for an energetic dance party that saw few patrons sitting in their seats. It’s a much different vibe here at the Greek, where sit down crowds have become the norm in recent years. But there’s still a sense of reverence in the air as the audience takes in the music on perhaps a more cerebral level. A “Street Fighter Mas” opener sets the tone for an insurgent evening of musical defiance against the status quo, with Kamasi as a musical warrior for peace and harmony.
Kamasi speaks of writing his 2017 EP Harmony of Difference “to remind us how beautiful we all are” and of how “our diversity is not something to be tolerated, it’s something to be celebrated”. That receives a wide cheer as such sentiment has long been a part of what has made the Bay Area a mecca for those who feel they don’t fit in elsewhere. Although the ever-rising cost of living in the region has been taking a toll in recent years.
That album’s song “Truth” is a highlight here, with Kamasi noting that he wrote the song with five melodies to symbolize the beauty of diversity. The band builds the song up with subtle sounds as guitar, keyboard, and horn melodies blend to create a vibrant sonic landscape, before a groovy breakdown that sets the stage for a big sax solo that evolves from swinging to exploratory free jazz tonality. Vocalist Patrice Quinn stars on “Will You Sing”, the powerful closer from 2018’s Heaven and Earth album. Here the singer implores listeners to join her and the band to sing out for a better world. “If our songs would set people free, will you sing? If our songs would change the world, will you sing?” she pleads with activist urgency. The jam is masterpiece theater, with the rhythm section building a compelling groove while Kamasi lays down flowing lines for peace and harmony.
The band carries this theme through to the end of their set, closing their performance with the dynamic “Fists of Fury”. Quinn speaks out in an almost mantra-like fashion, “We will take our retribution, we will no longer ask for justice” as the band throws down another groovy exploration of time and space that blends multiple genres for a crowd-pleasing sonic journey to win a huge ovation at the end.
A high bar has been set for the headliner, which Herbie Hancock seems to acknowledge when he takes the stage. “Let’s see what we can do, okay?” Herbie says rhetorically. There’s little the 79-year-old keyboard wizard can’t do when he sets his mind to it, having helped spur modern music evolution on multiple occasions. From Miles Davis’ renowned jazz quintet in the mid-’60s to the funky classics with his own band the Headhunters in the ’70s and MTV hits in the ’80s, Hancock has been there and done that.
There’s not much of that old school ’60s jazz flavor tonight though, as Herbie’s set seems to focus more on an artful modern jazz fusion sound. All the players are superb musicians, of course, and Herbie has an aura about him that gives everything the band plays a certain elegance. Herbie takes it back to 1974 for a groovy highlight with “Actual Proof”, an energetic number featuring an upbeat vibe with some dynamic syncopation that provides a great backdrop for his electric piano melodies. Another peak moment occurs when Kamasi Washington is welcomed back midway through the set for a big jam that feels like watching Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker in a sonic duel, as Herbie spurs Kamasi to take a big solo over a hot groove.
Herbie steps out with his keytar later in the set, leading the band through a funky jam on “Cantaloupe Island”. The evening comes to a climactic conclusion with more keytar action during the encore sequence as Kamasi and his horn section return to assist Herbie’s band with a big jam on the influential funk classic “Chameleon”. Here the musicians conjure a deep jam with dynamic solos galore, digging into the tight groove and letting it all hang loose to close the show.
Like Kamasi Washington earlier, Herbie Hancock also expresses sentiment for the good people of humanity coming together to transcend the chaos of modern times. “We’re all on this boat called Earth together… Let’s save the planet,” he implores the audience at the end. The evening has been an excellent example of how music can bring a diverse audience together in the name of sonic unity. One can’t help but sense that American politics would function so much better if more politicians were musicians and vice versa.