On Friday, I saw Kamasi Washington and Butcher Brown at The Sylvee for my first ever jazz concert. This was a new experience for me, as I’d only ever been to rap shows before.
While the atmosphere of the crowd was older and less diverse than what I was used to, the music performed on stage was nothing short of extraordinary.
The Sylvee, still a new venue, felt more modern than other venues which the average Madison concert goer might go to. The bars’ menus were displayed on plasma screen TVs, there were water fountains with water bottle fillers, and the walls looked freshly painted with barely a scratch.
While this is not a detriment to the show, it felt weird being in such a brand new venue with almost no history to it. Kamasi Washington and Butcher Brown helped give The Sylvee some history though, in a night to be remembered by all in attendance.
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Butcher Brown opened the show with their improvisational funk style, and set the tone for the kind of music that would be played all night. Their keyboardist, Devonne Harris, had some of the most memorable moments, using a variety of futuristic sounds on his keys and drawing praise from the crowd for his unorthodox but beautifully funky performance.
The group reminded me of an old school 1970s jazz funk band with the technological tools of the 21st century, and they did some serious musical exploration while still holding down the chord progressions and themes of the songs they had clearly worked hard on.
They were a solid opener, and each member of the group had a unique stage presence, feeding off of one another as any good band should.
When Butcher Brown finished their set, a 20 minute intermission ensued. The house lights came up all the way, which was a striking difference from the previous lighting setting. If the lights had dimmed slightly more, a concert feel would have continued throughout the intermission, but these are small kinks that will likely be worked out as The Sylvee continues to host concerts.
There was also nowhere to sit, as neither bars had stools, and the upstairs bar had a large section in front of it but no seats. The only available seats were along the balcony, and even though several of them were empty, only those who paid for VIP tickets were allowed to sit there.
Standing for hours wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but it would’ve been nice to have somewhere to sit during the break between artists.
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When Kamasi Washington and his band came on stage, the mood totally shifted. There was a brief moment where he stood in the darkness of the stage as the crowd held their breath, until the lights came on and he addressed the crowd in a friendly, almost nonchalant manner.
It was clear for the whole show that Washington was in control, even at the most dissonant parts of the music. He had a demeanor about him that showed he was both enjoying the music and calculating when he would blast his saxophone through the speaker next.
The show was both calculated and improvised, and it was clear the band was all on the same page when it came to transitioning from song to song.
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Interestingly, the melody from the song “Street Fighter Mas” was done several times throughout the show, both sung by voice and played by a variety of instruments. The epic and triumphant sounding chorus popped up in a variety of songs throughout the show, and helped anchor the band to a familiar groove as a point to transition from.
The lighting was very well done, using several rotating lights on stage with a bunch of different color combinations. As the music hit a climax point, the lights would swirl and change color, which is not an easy thing to calculate during an improvisational jazz show.
It is also no easy feat mixing the sound of 2 drum sets, a trombone, saxophone, upright bass, keys and voice through the system’s speakers, but the tech people at The Sylvee did a great job here as well.
When someone was performing a solo, they were not drowned out by the other powerful instruments, and no instrument ever felt individually overpowering. Even the two drum sets, which seemed like an excessive amount of percussion at first, were totally in sync throughout the show and complemented the massive sound of the band.
A powerful moment during the show came when everyone left the stage besides the two drummers who had back and forth drum solos.
The two drummers, Ronald Bruner Jr. and Tony Austin, each showed off their ability on their kits while staying in rhythm with one another even through drastic tempo and thematic changes. They clearly had been playing together a long time, as with the rest of the band, whose chemistry was a feature throughout the show.
While the music displayed the impressive ability of all the band members, Kamasi Washington was also able to tell the story of his album on stage, both with music and by talking to the audience.
He would always take the time to say the name of the band member who had just done a solo. When he introduced the drummers, he gave long backstories of how they’d grown up together and sprinkled in jokes about the dumb stuff they did when they were little.
He also took the time to explain a theme in his music, saying “people are more similar than we are different, but that little bit of difference should be celebrated. Diversity should not be tolerated, it should be celebrated.”
This idea really resonated with the audience and provided an important context for the music, which contained moments that were so off the wall they were almost unbearable to listen to, only to transition back to the sweet, beautiful melody of the song.
The whole band seemed to understand when the solos would end and the theme of the song would begin. The way that everyone was in synch with each other contributed to the power in the music.
Washington’s music represented both anger and triumph, ugliness and beauty — at the same time.
While jazz may not be every music listener’s first choice, seeing the incredible talent of Kamasi Washington and his band will make one think otherwise.
Washington’s music prompts thoughtful reflection about the world and the intricate music making process that goes into each and every song, but mostly makes listeners feel things powerfully.
Washington said he will be back in Madison on his next tour — definitely not a performance to miss. Audience members will have endless opportunities to marvel at the instrumentation and let their emotions loose through the music.