The best kind of music is transcendent, and in order to achieve that level of expression, an artist must dig deep to obtain something meaningful. In the case of many Black artists, the search for transcendence is directed both inward and skyward because searching for enlightenment and inspiration is found in both places.
Recently, the Red Bull Music Academy played host to three such sublime acts–saxophonist Kamasi Washington, free jazz legend Pharoah Sanders, and the Sun Ra Arkestra for Where Spaceways Meet: A Night of Spiritual Jazz in Brooklyn.
While the artists differ vastly in terms of age and musical aesthetic, they all epitomize the tradition of embracing Blackness through an exploration outside of the confines of the reality around them.
According to Sun Ra Arkestra saxophonist Knoel Scott, the composer used to often ask, "What is this life you call death? You call this life?”
Scott expounded on this idea in the documentary In the Orbit of Ra. "His concept of what people call life on this planet he saw as a spiritual death. So, give up your death, give up your spiritual death and live a spiritual awakening. Give up the limitations and the illusion of what they call life."
Although Sun Ra passed away in 1993, the remaining members of his Arkestra carry the composer's message to future generations.
"Sun Ra's missions were to open the minds of musicians and people and public to the space age," current Arkestra conductor Marshall Allen said. "Open people's minds up to creating things and other worlds besides this one."
During the performance, the members of the Arkestra marched on the stage surrounded by astral video projections and multi-hued light beams. Each entertainer was draped in sequins tops and hats; the look was part Egyptology, part extraterrestrial. The group began their set with its signature anthem/chant, "Interplanetary Melodies," setting the tone for the performance. The set consisted of Sun Ra's classics, "Angel Race" and "Astro Black," followed by traditional big band regality, and later, the mood shifted to defiant chaos. Vocalist Tara Middleton's lush voice took the crowd even higher and echoed the composer's celestial theme as she sang, "The world is not our own," and "I know I'm a member of an angel race." Though the Sun Ra Arkestra's musical approach may seem completely out of the norm, it contains echoes of other, more mainstream, artists like George Clinton and Stevie Wonder, who also toyed with the idea of Black people as supernatural beings.
When it comes to spiritual jazz, no other artist embodies the genre better than Pharoah Sanders. The multi-instrumentalist learned at the feet of Johh Coltrane, and A Love Supreme, Coltrane's self-proclaimed love letter to God, would inform Sanders' work in the '60s and '70s. At the time, he melded free jazz with spiritual overtones and African musings in albums like Karma and Thembi.
During his time on stage, Sanders and his quartet led off their five song set with "The Greatest Love of All," a surprising choice, but a lovely one, as Sanders' sax was gentle, driving home the tenderness of the composition's message of "learning to love yourself." Of course he paid respects to his mentor, Coltrane, with a rousing performance of "Naima," garnering an enthusiastic applause from the crowd. Sanders ended his set with his sprawling opus "The Creator Has a Master Plan," which included audience call and response and Sanders dancing his heart out. Sanders' incorporation of religion and music not only paved the way for other jazz artists like Lonnie Liston Smith and Roy Ayers, but also songwriters like Gamble and Huff, Marvin Gaye, and Prince, whose fusion of spirituality and sensuality is well documented.
Up last was Washington and his band, the West Coast Get Down. The octet, which included a vocalist and two drummers, is the latest example of how jazz is informed by a higher plain of inspiration. The South Central Los Angeles saxophonist incorporated various idioms into his 2015 debut triple album The Epic, but contends his music comes from the same place as Sun Ra and Sanders.
"Music is a spiritual thing," Washington told EBONY.com during a pre-show interview. "I understand the commonalities of spiritual music, and spiritual jazz is a certain style of playing, but to me, all the music I play is spiritual, funk or something else."
Washington's eight-song set was littered with the grounded funk and cosmic soul that’s turned him into a superstar. His cadenza segue between the astral "The Next Step" to the militant "Malcolm's Theme" was prodigiously startling, sounding more like a steel drum than a tenor sax. During album standout "Miss Understanding," the wah-wah of the upright bass was blissfully devastating, and later added a head-nodding intro to the peaceful "The Rhythm Changes."
With his musical dexterity, Washington is now sharing space with folks like Earth,Wind, and Fire and Janelle Monae, the latter of whom is melding past with the (Afro) future to cultivate an alternate space where people can achieve happiness by embracing themselves rather than following others.
"Philosophically, I feel music is a medium of self expression, and so my approach, I purposely try to make music come from me, instead of me trying to imitate what somebody else does," Washington explained. "It's difficult. You really are exposing the most sensitive parts of who you are. That's when I'm having the most fun; that's when I make my best music."