A big part of my ‘brand’ over the last few years as a jazz critic has been that I am consistantly underwhelmed and disappointed by big name, West Coast jazzers like Kamasi Washington and Robert Glasper. At university I garnered something of a reputation among my fellow music students as someone who was a little too hard on Washington in particular (although I maintained and continue to maintain otherwise). A lot of that has to do with ego. These are men (and yes, it’s always the men in particular) who try to attain the solo artist status of big name pop musicians, forgetting that jazz more than any other genre is a group effort where acknowledgeing your sidemen is vital to the continuing life of the music.
But, my own bitterness aside, it’s important to acknowledge when artists who usually exude bags of off-putting, narcissistic energy do something worth celebrating. The subject of this piece is a new mini album called Dinner Party from big name, West Coast musicians, Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington and 9th Wonder. Now, to be clear, I’m fairly certain that the reasons I like this new collaborative project so much are twofold. Firstly, it’s not carelessly marketing itself as a straight-up jazz record in the way some of these musicians have previously done. A big part of that is due to the involvement of hip-hop producer, 9th Wonder, as one of the four core voices of the project and the frequent features from up and coming neo-soul vocalist, Phoelix. The project has a vibe that comprises elements from hip-hop, neo-soul and West Coast jazz. It is laid back, unpretentious and decidedly not falsely advertising itself.
Secondly, the project is spearheaded by Terrace Martin, the genius musical director behind the overtly free jazz influenced instrumentals of Kendrick Lamar’s masterwork, To Pimp A Butterfly. Martin is a much humbler figure in the current jazz scene who doesn’t seem nearly as keen to market himself as a personality, and is much happier than the other musicians on this project to split his time between fronting projects and paying his dues as a sideman.
Now, despite the laidback vibes of Dinner Party, there’s no slouching in the realm of musicianship. Despite my outspoken resistance to Kamasi Washington’s hastily rising star I’ve always been a fan of his saxophone playing for the brashness of his tone and the versatility of his improvisation. The balance of the writing contributions from each of the four heads of this project is unknown to me, but in performance, Washington largely functions as the purveyor of catchy melodic patterns and brilliantly soulful solos which often serve as the most harmonically adventurous element on any given track.
I often find Robert Glasper and his onstage persona fueled by a particular brand of gotcha, pranky humour to be obnoxious and irritating, but there’s no denying the man can play. His piano work is frequently heartfelt and occasionally quite beautiful, particularly on the outro of the project’s lead single, ‘Freeze Tag’. Said track is undeniably the most powerful on the record. It takes an incredibly catchy melody, sung by Phoelix, and an equally memorable saxophone lick, places them over a neo-soul accompaniment that grooves and flows with effortless grace, and then slips in powerful, gut-wrenching lyrics about police brutality. This is a track that will undeniably stick with me even if the rest of the record fades into obscurity.
It’s nice to see a project from musicians who have often, perhaps mistakenly, marketed themselves as aggressive boundary pushers, taking a step back and embracing what they can do when they utilise their chemistry with one another in a more relaxed setting. Dinner Party is a creative endeavour from Martin and co. that places a group of headstrong virtuosos in a setting that requires them to leave their egos at the door, the result being a collection of music that feels genuinely earnest – unburdened by manufactured personas. This is the kind of populist music making that I’ve been waiting to hear from the popular musicians of the West Coast jazz scene since Washington released The Epic five years ago.