Ruminating on Guns N’ Roses’ relevance in 2017, I leaned against Turner Hall Tuesday night and watched the masses file into the BMO Harris Bradley Center. As a lifelong GN’R fan, a small piece of my heart floated into the towering arena in front of me—but my brain knew that the most crucial performance of the night would be in the building behind me. Kamasi Washington is the face of modern jazz and arguably its most important voice. His contributions to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, as well as his solo debut, The Epic, have thrust jazz into a place in the popular music lexicon it hasn’t occupied in decades.
Milwaukee institution The Erotic Adventures Of The Static Chicken took the stage first. Their 17 years as a band have included a residency at the East Side’s famed Jazz Estate, as well as over 700 shows. While their name is a little jarring, it fits well with their freewheeling improvisations. On stage, the band joked between songs and looked to be having the time of their lives. The half-hour-plus opening number flowed with a consistency that immense bergs of song rarely possess. The bass/drums/sax trio utilized live sampling and looping to augment their sound. This added dimension, and opened the doors to the unlimited potential of their songs.
As Kamasi Washington walked onstage—followed by the other six members of his band—one couldn’t help but notice the fact that they all were smiling. With no hesitation, the band grabbed their instruments and dove straight into their set. Minutes in, the band members could still be seen smiling at each other and the crowd. Their infectious energy extended to the crowd and time stood still as they proceeded through their set. The band floated through selections from The Epic and Washington’s latest EP, Harmony Of Difference. For the majority of the songs, Washington brought out his father, soprano saxophonist/flautist Rickey Washington, to accompany the band. Watching the father/son combo added an emotional current to the already positive vibe.
Throughout the night, it was clear that Washington was the bandleader, but it never loomed over the group. His directions were minimal and he regularly stepped aside to give focus to whomever was soloing. Whenever Washington stepped aside, a smile formed on his face as he looked on. In those moments he was projecting the same joy as the audience members. His between-song banter about people’s strengths being in their differences added to the all-inclusive and positive mood. With their uplifting set, Washington and his band played jazz for the masses.