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The King, and Moonchild conquer Mr. Smalls
On Monday night; November 27th, Kamasi Washington, and Moonchild played the Mr. Smalls theatre in Millvale, PA. That short sentence in no way begins to describe the musical banquet that the large and enthusiastic crowd in attendance was treated to. For those of you who have never been to Mr. Smalls in Millvale, please know that this venue may come as a surprise to the new comer. It seems to rise out of the landscape of the small town in an almost surreal fashion, and the striking architecture of the building makes it seem somewhat out of place.
Mr. Smalls theatre is a large old church building. It looks to be of Greek Orthodox origin, but the lighted signs, and the young eager crowd climbing the long concrete staircase and waiting to go through security let you know that there will be no church services there. A large shining black and silver tour bus with a stainless-steel equipment trailer attached to the rear was parked in the front of the building and indicated that whoever was playing that night seems to be doing rather well, and must be pretty good. And if you haven’t heard of Kamasi Washington (or as I like to refer to him; King Kamasi), or Moonchild, then let me tell you, pretty good doesn’t do either band adequate justice.
Since the venue is as much a draw as the bands (as least for first timers like me), I’ll describe the interior just a little. The entryway is a small metal framed glass door. Once inside, you come immediately to the aluminum framed ticket window. On the other side of the window the ticket office appears to be small and a little cramped. I recommend buying your tickets “will call” online, because it saves the hassle of waiting for them to come in the mail; just show your ID, and the teller will give you your tickets.
Next is a wooden door; the entryway to the main hallway. The décor is a little funky; picture the old Kiva Han coffee shop in Oakland, or an old bar, and you’ll get the picture; nothing to write home about. A ticket taker is seated behind two folding tables lined end to end. The walls behind her displays the featured artist’s CDs, t-shirts and memorabilia for sale. Near the end of the table, across the narrow hallway to the right is the door into the main stage area; what used to be the sanctuary.
Once in the door of the sanctuary, you’ll be standing under a wide dark wood balcony, and a few feet beyond that is a large open floor covered by an enormously high ceiling that is interspersed with large maroon baffle boards to suppress echo. There’s also a wooden door hanging between the ceiling baffle boards that may function as some type of sound reflector, but whatever its purpose, it adds to the gritty ambiance of the décor. The stage is in a large deep-set alcove to the left of the entryway. The dark wood, cavernous ceiling, and rustic décor of the room, gives the place an almost barnlike feel.
Just so you know, general admission means standing room only; there are no chairs on the main floor, but there are two small bars; one in the rear opposite the stage, and the other under the balcony to the far right of the entryway. The bars have only the basic liquors, and lots of beer, and drinks are reasonably priced. There is seating, but it’s upstairs in the balcony only, and it’s an additional $30 -40 minimum drink and food purchase per seat. There are actually two balconies, and I suppose the upper balcony is the cheaper seats. Luckily for me and my date, there were seats on the ground floor (but only 3 of them), in the back against the wall near the bar and the stairs to the balcony. We were lucky. We spent the night seated, enjoying nonalcoholic beverages (I had to drive), and chatting with a gentleman we met; George Grant, an ex-internet DJ, and jazz aficionado.
We arrived a little late, and as we entered the main hallway I could hear a beautiful voice singing from the main auditorium. The voice was reminiscent of Erika Badu, Corrine Baily Rae, or Billy Holliday, yet it was also liltingly light. I thought for a moment that it was King Kamasi’s band, or maybe some recorded music, but to my surprise it the voice of Amber Navran; lead singer and song writer for the band “Moon Child”; a blue eyed neo soul band (marketed as Alternative music), of 4 musicians. We had caught them at the beginning of their set. They were fantastic, and since I purchased the CD from Amber, and had a chance to briefly chat with her (I met her in the hallway during Kamasi’s set), I’ll save the rest of my thoughts for my next article where I’ll review Moon Child’s latest album “Voyager”. Let me just say here that they are fantastic band, and a great warm up act for the crowd that night, and they complimented the headline group excellently.
After a brief intermission, and stage set change, it was time for the main event. On stage was the band trademark of 2 opposing drums sets, and on them were Ronald Bruner Jr. & Robert Miller. Another trademark of the band is the plexiglass sound shield (far stage right), for the vocalist Patrice Quinn; an upright bass sat between the drums, and on it was Joshua Crumbly, aka “Young Genius”; the Electric Keyboards sat far stage left with Brandon Coleman, aka “Hot Sause” powerfully gracing the music with his highly energetic style. In center stage sat three mic stands for the horns: Tenor Sax, Kamasi Washington, (center mic); Soprano sax and flute, Ricky Washington (Kamasi’s dad, stage right of Kamasi), and Trombone, Ryan Porter (stage left). It seems like I’m never really ready for what I’m going to hear when this band starts to play, but I’m always amazed by the almost symphonic majesty of the music.
One of the most descriptive words I can use for Kamasi’s sound is “Epic”, which just so happens to be the name of his last 3 CD Album. His sound is warm, expansive, exotic, and adventurous in feel and expression. He takes you on a musical journey that you do not want to end. But Kamasi can also jam with the best of them. You will find yourself not only taking a musical trip with the band, but at times and on various cuts, you’ll be nodding your head and enjoying a funky groove that is right at home with this band’s persona as well. The band played songs primarily from the Epic album, and Kamasi’s new album Harmony of Difference. One of the first songs they played was off his new album; a song entitled “Truth”. It was beautifully done, and ushered the audience into Kamasi’s world.
Customarily, Ricky Washington doesn’t come to the bandstand until about 15 minutes into the set; a set which lasted about an hour and fifteen minutes. But when Kamasi’s dad shows up, you soon realize that he’s not there out of mere respect, or fatherly reverence; the man can play! His soprano sax and flute are a pleasure to hear.
There were several standout numbers in the set, but to tell you the truth, I was in “enjoyment” mode; the note taking had gone out the window, and my critic hat was off, and my fan hat was firmly in place. But, there were landmark songs in the set, and they caught my attention. One number was a song written by keyboardist Brandon Coleman entitled “Giant Feelings”. Brandon played the guitar strap keyboard for this number, and the funky intro had the crowd jamming. Brandon also uses the voice box synthesizer on this tune. This was somewhat of a departure from the norm for the band, but it blended right in with the avant garde nature of the group.
Although Kamasi has a style that is completely his own, he also pays homage to his influences. I’m not sure if it conscious, or not, but during the concert, I could hear snippets of Coltrane, Sonny Stit, and even my main man Stanley Turrentine. Kamasi bridges the gap from this generation of jazz to prior ones in a unique and artful way. One example of this is a standard that is on his Epic album; the song Cherokee. Patrice Quinn’s beautiful voice is highlighted on this song, and the handling of the song is fresh and new.
One of the last songs the Kamasi played is an anthem of sorts. It’s an inspiring song for people chasing their dreams; a song of defiance and an announcement to the world that many people of the underdog sort can relate to “The Rhythm Changes; I’m Here”. Patrice Quinn sings this song convincingly and with passion, and the band rises to the occasion majestically.
The very last song that the band played was off Kamasi’s new album “Harmony of Difference”. The song is entitled “Desire”. It’s a beautiful musical ballad, and Kamasi introduced it as a song that has five different parts, but comes together as a beautiful whole. The song is indeed beautiful, and the evening’s show was spectacular; spectacular in the simplicity of its delivery, and spectacular in its vision. Kamasi stays true to his vision, and delivers a satisfying product to his listeners. If you’ve never been to a concert of his, do yourself a favor and go and hear this band. You will be amazed and well pleased.
I’d like to take the time here to thank my cousin (yes, my Dad’s brother’s daughter), Ms Denele Biggs. She was a lifesaver in the writing of this article. She gave me all the names of the players, and their instruments (I had trouble hearing the spoken word from where I was seated). Denele is a published writer and poet; Her latest book is “The Unspoken”. You can find her at www.deneledbiggs.com.
One final thought; take a moment to research your favorite jazz artists on http://www.nmojazz.com/
It’s the # 1 Jazz search engine in the world!!!
I always have a good time writing these articles. It brings back good memories, and it’s a labor of love. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it, and I thank you for joining me here. See you around, and I’ll “Catch You on the Corner!”