Few concerts have ever filled me with sadness—a deep, probing discomfort which I cannot shake even as I write this. This despair doesn’t come from the music of Kamasi Washington or Herbie Hancock, but the half-hearted nature and utter meaninglessness of their performances at the Met Philadelphia on August 4.
Washington and Hancock’s Sunday double bill was three-and-a-half hours of occasionally interesting glimmers snuffed out by a sea of screaming banality. My body and soul are sore.
Listening from afar
If I did not know better, if I had not toured the tea shops, galleries, basements, and assorted parlors of Philadelphia, I would have thought jazz had died. That it had been resigned to cartoon flailing, loud banging, and the corniness catalyzed by the commercialization of expired truth.
Jazz’s great features are its intimacy and its spontaneity, of being in conversation with artists as they, right there on stage, discover and explore the beauty of sound and form. The very nature of commerce ensures that the most gifted and popular jazz musicians are ripped from the setting as soon as they take their first flights within it.
Even the good seats at the Met Philadelphia are farther away from the stage then any other venue I’ve been to in the city. What I listened to was not an instrument but an amplification, the balance between the artists mediated primarily by the person working the board.
There is an air about the place which feels so thoroughly artificial that I doubted whether the people on stage were even real, that the improvisation was improvised. This cynicism was reinforced by an onslaught of “special guests,” keytar solos, exhortations to vote, and declarations that we are all beautiful and all one kind of person, amongst other empty words. I’m shocked there wasn’t a cry to save the whales and pay the teachers.
Where’s the love?
To cover up this lack of intimacy, there was overstimulation. This was particularly unbearable during Washington’s 90-minute set, with overwhelming loudness (despite ear plugs) and strobing lights that blazed into the audience’s eyes for no apparent reason. The members of his group would gesticulate and head bob like any old three-chord boy-band. The singer (whose mic was cut for a majority of the performance) literally air-guitared during the keyboard solo.
Bassist Miles Mosely gave astonishingly bad solos which consisted mostly of misusing a delay pedal. At one point in some world peace and love diatribe by Washington, Mosely chalked on his bass, “I love you too” as if that were in any way inspired. Miles, you don’t know me, and you literally cannot even see me. How could you possibly love me?
Yet when Washington was playing at the Met, and I closed my eyes and tuned out the rest of band, I could actually enjoy myself in some moments. His tone is bright and rich. He thoughtfully integrates noises into melodies. He is superb. Unfortunately, the rest of his group seemed like they learned jazz from etude books.
This musical marathon had one standout section: the first 45 minutes from Herbie Hancock’s band were excellent, refreshing, and almost made me believe that what had been onstage previously was an aberration. Hancock opened this section with his keyboard synthesizer spitting out harmonically tuned spirals of sound. A blistering sax solo by Terrace Martin followed, with that trademark mixing of funk with moody, grungy dissonance, slipping between genres like a perverse jam band. It was in this section that Lionel Loueke stole the show. He has a masterful sense of pitch bending, like that of a master koto player, using his nylon string guitar to alternatively shred and percuss in a way that had me riveted.
The next big thing in jazz
This momentum was not to last. Hancock introduced us to a “special guest”: the flautist/vocalist Elena Ayodele. After several excruciating minutes of hype, we finally got to hear her sing some remnants of a pop song called “breathe in/breathe out.” It was bad. Her voice is breathy; the style dead on arrival. I have no idea why she appeared, other than that some music executive thought it would be wise to showcase a newly chosen star. Thankfully, her flute playing, though fairly boring, was technically sound with good tone—even if the sound technician couldn’t properly equalize the sound, causing its higher partials to be painfully loud. After this, I just wanted to go home. It continued for another 45 minutes.
This concert delivered a product, giving people what they paid (exorbitantly) for: the appearance of music and the ability to say they were there, even as the actual experience of being and listening proved ancillary. But that seemed just fine to most of the audience. Should we call it a success, then? If so, my congratulations to all involved.
What, When, Where
Herbie Hancock and Kamasi Washington shared a double bill on August 4, 2019 at The Met Philadelphia, 858 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (800) 653-8000 or themetphilly.com.
The Met Philadelphia is an ADA-compliant venue. Wheelchair-accessible seating is available for purchase online: look for the ADA icon on the Find Tickets page to view all available accessible seats. Advance purchase is strongly encouraged, as this seating is limited. The Met also offers assisted listening devices with at least two days’ notice to the box office. With two weeks’ notice, guests requiring an ASL interpreter can arrange for one by calling (610) 227-1165.