Skip to content

Kamasi Washington and Next Step- First Avenue 8/11/19

I am a big fan of Kamasi Washington. I got turned on to Kamasi when a music buddy suggested I listen to this new jazz cat on the scene in the spring of 2015. I listened to The Epic and I was instantly hooked.

What grabbed me was the Coltrane style shredding in an acid jazz setting with elaborate arrangements (small combo, big band, orchestra, choir, vocalists, etc.). Kamasi is standing on the shoulders of his jazz predecessors, but he interjects his own personality into the jazz tradition. Ultimately, there’s a playfulness and a joy to Kamasi’s art.

Besides his music, which I love, what I appreciate about Kamasi is that he is bringing young people to jazz. Not watered down lite-jazz or some kind of fusion with contemporary pop music, but with straight-ahead jazz. He successfully communicates to a millennial audience raised on alternative rock and hip hop in the ancient language of jazz. Not with standards, but with stunning originals; it is absolutely fascinating. I have a theory on why millennials ears are open to Kamasi’s jazz: hip hop. Hip hop stars like Kendrick Lamar (whose albums Kamasi has played on) and A Tribe Called Quest have slipped in enough jazz in their beats to create fertile ears. Hip hop is hope for jazz.

Some jazz snobs are dismissive of Kamasi for reasons I don’t understand. What I do understand is that Kamasi is playing challenging music in the jazz tradition and is capable of filling a rock club on a Sunday night with millennials.

This is the fourth time I have seen Kamasi live. Each time he has been more commanding on stage. He and his band (Next Step) play in an aggressive and loud style, appropriate for the rock venues they are playing in. Kamasi is currently touring with a nine-piece band (two saxes, trombone, two drummers, two keyboard players, vocalist, and bass).

The First Ave crowd was very into the show. I asked a few neighbors around me if this was their first Kamasi show and the answer was yes. I was witnessing a bunch of indie rockers and hip hop heads having their first jazz woody. I couldn’t help but recall seeing Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Pat Metheny, and Woody Shaw when I was about twenty and falling in love with jazz music. It was a beautiful thing to witness.

Kamasi does not patronize his audience, but he is not aloof either – he is a rock star. He knows how to shred, but he also knows how to entertain.

Kamasi is currently on tour supporting Herbie Hancock. Kamasi is the kind of passionate musician that detours several hundred miles out of his way on his night off with Herbie to headline a rock club. Given the Hancock tour, Kamasi was in a position to fortify his band with the best of the West Coast Get Down collective. A special treat was keyboardist BIGYUKI who I was unfamiliar with. He brought some new colors to the Kamasi’s Next Step Band.

Kamasi played a nice cross-section of tunes from his three albums. Highlights were “Change of the Guard,” “Truth” and “Fists of Fury.” Each band member got a nice solo throughout the night. A special treat was Miles Mosley taking the lead on one of his songs: “Abraham.”

Kamasi has got to put out a live album. What he does live is rawer than what he does in the studio – they truly “tear the roof off the sucker.” If you get a chance to see Kamasi live don’t miss it.

Advertisements

Jessy Wilson – Phase

I discovered Jessy Wilson by way of Gary Clark Jr. Jessy was the warm-up act for the Clark show I was going to see. In the olden days, you were introduced to a warm-up act at the venue. But in the age of streaming, it is easy and no investment to sample the act in advance.

I gave Jessy’s new album Phase a listen and I was immediately hooked. This seemed like the perfect set up act for Gary Clark Jr. The music was soulful with a touch of the blues. A little retro, but it had a modern sound too. There was a familiar sound to the production, but I couldn’t place it. I googled it and it turns out Patrick Carney of the Black Keys produced Phase. Now when I listened to Phase I hear the Black Keys fronted by a soulful female. A really cool amalgamation.

Speaking of Keys, it turns out Jessy got her big break in the business several years ago singing backup vocals for Alicia Keys. You can hear a bit of Alicia Keys in Jessy’s vocals, but without the slickness (which is a good thing).

I got to the Clark show a bit late, but just in time to catch the last half of Jessy’s set. She was sensational. She and her band sounded great. Visually she was arresting:

And she has the entertainment gene. She did exactly what a warm-up act is supposed to do: she earned some new fans. Despite only hearing half a short set, I am on the Jessy Wilson bandwagon.

If you are a fan of the many retro-soul bands on the scene but are seeking a more original and modern take, check out Jessy Wilson. If you are a fan of the Black Keys, you will enjoy this soulful and feminine twist on their sound.

If you need categories, I will say this is a combination of soul music and psychedelic rock. If you don’t need categories, file this under good music. In addition to being an engaging performer, Jessy is a songwriter. She is the whole package.  I hope to see Jessy headling a show soon.

Here is a little more background per V Magazine:

Despite this being her first solo album, the Nashville-based artist already has an impressive career behind her. After graduating from LaGuardia High School (yes, that one), Wilson began singing backup for Alicia Keys as well as writing songs with John Legend. She’s also worked with artists Kanye West, Meek Mill and will.i.am. Even without singing any notable songs herself, her talent for songwriting has earned her two Grammy nominations.

After the Clark show, I headed over to the merch tent and there was Jessy selling merch and signing LPs (it’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll).  I couldn’t resist and picked up Phase.  I have been spinning it for the last few days –  it’s a great album and will be on my end of the year list.  If you want a quick sample, give “Love & Sophistication” a listen. My favorite song is “Cool One” – but there is not a stiff on the LP – this is an impressive debut.

Tube Rolling – Vintage Amperex ECC88 (A-frame and dimpled disc getter) + TC Tubes

I am reviewing a vintage 1975 Amperex ECC88 tube with an A-frame and dimple disc getter from Holland that I purchased from TC Tubes.  I have no idea what all that means. I am a pretty uneducated audiophile, but I love tube equipment and I have personal experience that rolling tubes can make a difference.

Tube rolling is the process of trying out a number of tubes in the same spot in an amplifier and selecting the one that sounds best to you. This can be very helpful in optimizing the tone of the amplifier.

My rig is a Croft Acoustics Integrated Phono (integrated amp) and a Schiit Vali 2 (headphone amp). Both are tube-based.

I recently rolled the Croft’s tube that supports the phono stage with the tube that used to be in my Bellari phono amp (a Tung-Sol Gold Pin 12AX7). It was a noticeable improvement. The Croft already sounded great, but now the sound is even fatter.

Ever since I picked up the Schiit Vali 2 I have been meaning to roll the tube because the stock tube was low quality (an unlabeled tube that probably is worth $3 new). I finally got around to it. I checked in with my analog audio expert @cellphono at the Needle Doctor (a fellow Schiit Vali owner) and he recommended:

Swapping the tube out in the Schitt made a huge difference for me. There is a variety tubes that work in that circuit, but I had the best luck with 6DJ8. If you get one from TC Tubes, or somewhere else that tests them, ask for one with “matched triodes.”

I reached out to TC Tubes for a recommendation:

I recommend this Amperex ECC88 (European version of a 6DJ8). Make a note when you check out that it’s for a Schiit headphone amp and we’ll be sure to select one with balanced triodes and very low noise.

Thanks,
Chelsea

I love the “mom and pop” retail vibe of TC Tubes. Per their website:

We are a small midwestern business founded by a husband and wife team (Tyler and Chelsea). After collecting vacuum tubes and tube related gear for more than a decade as a way of supporting our hi-fi audio hobby, we have decided to take it to the next level.

Note the handwritten message on the invoice:

I got solid advice and high quality service from TC Tubes. The tube was shipped safely and quickly. The tube was tested and judged “phono grade.” I will be a repeat customer (I need to roll the preamp tubes on the Croft and would like to play around more with the Croft’s phono stage too).

Well enough with all the background, how does it sound? The short answer is that it is a major upgrade and it sounds great.

First, my preference is to run the Schiit switched to high gain (louder), but I had been avoiding that because it was noisy. With the tube upgrade, it now runs quietly at high gain.

Second, the sound is more vivid. The old tube had warmth but at the expense of sounding muddy. Now I have tube warmth, yet there is a clarity that was not there before. The goal of every audio upgrade for me is to “hear more.” I am instantly hearing more nuances in my reference recording: Robert Plant’s Record Store Day 2019 vinyl reissue of Fate of Nations (originally issued in 1993). Side 2, which is more acoustic, especially shimmers.

I moved on to the recent Black Pumas self-titled release. The production is more three dimensional. Again, I am “hearing more.”

I can’t compare this vintage Amperex to other similar quality tubes as I don’t have the experience nor access to inventory to compare. What I do know, is that if you have tube audio components, tube rolling is the cheapest upgrade you can buy/trade to improve your gear. This vintage Amperex was $65 shipped – a pretty inexpensive audio high.

Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars

Springsteen is almost 70 years old and this is his 19th studio album.  He is still very much in the game. This is an outstanding album – it may be his best since The Rising in 2002 and rivals his glory days. This is an interesting tweak on the Springsteen sound: an orchestra and pedal steel. Where Bruce used to use the E Street Band or synths, he is now using an orchestra and pedal steel. It does not sound saccharine, it sounds sweet.  This really works.

Writing an autobiography and doing Broadway was clearly inspiring for The Boss. I have said this before about acts like the Stones, McCartney, Simon, and Dylan – these late-career masterpieces are proof that guys like Springsteen are true rock stars.

The album is filled with great songs and gorgeous arrangements.  Bruce’s voice is an easy cowboy-drawl and is the perfect match for this batch of songs.

Bruce finds the same down and out characters on the west coast as he found on the Jersey shore. The location has changed the details, but the essence remains the same: finding a moment of glory – celebrating Saturday night and ignoring Monday. From “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe:”

I come through the door and feel the workweek slip away

See you out on the floor and Monday morning’s a million miles away

Per his website:

…the album draws inspiration in part from the Southern California pop records of the late ’60s and early ’70s.

I couldn’t agree more.  The songs have the feel of the great Jimmy Webb hits of that period.  I can’t help but hear Glen Campbell singing these songs – I think Bruce would be alright with that.

J.S. Ondara – Tales Of America

I became aware of J. S. Ondara because of the Kenyan’s Minnesota connection. He came to Minnesota to find the muse of Bob Dylan. He was twenty and not even a serious musician. He dove in headfirst and six years later he has a major label LP release. I won’t even try to recap the story – it is better told other places. But if it was fiction, it would be preposterous.

The album is gorgeous, Ondara has a high ethereal voice. The instrumentation is subtle: Ondara on acoustic guitar and some songs have additional acoustic instruments and harmony vocals. These additions are provided by some heavy hitters: Andrew Bird, some of the guys from Dawes and producer Mike Viola (Ryan Adams, Jenny Lewis, Mandy Moore, etc.). Viola’s light touch production is perfect.

The songs are pop-folk with great hooks, think of a contemporary Simon and Garfunkel. This is an amazing debut, it is confident and mature. It completely contradicts the narrative of Ondara’s biography.

Mill City Sound and The Marcus King Band – Carolina Confessions

In a recent post, I talked about how we used to discover music before the internet. I mentioned radio, magazines, reputations and cover art. I forgot another valuable source: the record store clerk.

The stereotypical record store clerk is so aloof that you are afraid to ask about a selection for fear of judgment: “your music taste sucks!” But when you find a friendly and knowledgeable record store clerk you are golden. They will provide you with amazing recommendations and great conversation.

I was recently at Mill City Sound in Hopkins Mn to pick up the latest Black Keys record. Naturally, I needed to dig through the new used crates. The record store clerk noted that he had the same Chris Robinson Brotherhood T-shirt as I was wearing. When I got to the checkout we started to talk about music and he mentioned (no raved) about the Marcus King Band. Given my T-shirt, he was confident I would love it. Well, I was not going to pass that up. “So you got a copy?” I asked. He jumped out from behind the counter and headed to the crates. He whipped out a copy. I took it up to the counter and a different guy had now taken over the register. He starts to ring it up and raves what a great record Carolina Confessions is. That was some serious hype. I left the store on a very positive note and went home to give the album a spin hoping the LP would live up to the hype. It lives up to the hype.

Marcus King has sweet sandpaper vocals, somewhere between Gregg Allman and Janis Joplin. Oh and he plays guitar too – regular and pedal steel! Did I mention he is a songwriter? King was 20 when he recorded this album – King is a wunderkind.

Per the band’s website:

“Marcus King has been writing songs and performing onstage for half his lifetime, delivering a southern fried brand of blues and psychedelia inspired by rock n’ roll…King is a Blue Ridge Mountain boy, born and raised in Greenville, South Carolina. A fourth-generation musician, he traces his lineage back to his fiddle-playing great grandfather, while his grandfather was a fiddler and guitarist. His dad is Marvin King, is a singer/guitarist who has toured nationally since the ‘70’s with various artists as well as his own group, Marvin King and Blue Revival. Since he was a teenager, he’s been trading licks with famous fans and mentors Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks whenever their paths have crossed.”

On first listen, my response was this is a nice Allman Brothers inspired blues-rock. But it did not knock me out. King’s performance is subtle and nuanced. It reveals the fire on repeated spins. By the fourth spin, I am loving this.

The Marcus King Band sounds like a big band, but it is merely a six-piece – again from the band’s website:

“…drummer Jack Ryan, bass player Stephen Campbell, trumpeter/trombonist Justin Johnson, sax player Dean Mitchell and keyboard player DeShawn “D-Vibes” Alexander—create a blistering, yet soulful unit that has honed their synergy through endless touring.”

If you like guitar based jamming blues-rock you are going to like The Marcus King Band – Carolina Confessions.

Black Keys – “Let’s Rock”

The Black Keys evolved from a little indie rock band to an arena band. They have a simple formula: bluesy garage rock with big riffs and chugging rhythm. It has gotten more sophisticated and a little slicker over time, but the Black Keys has never really strayed from the basic concept. This new album tosses off some of the slickness and sophistication – it is back to basics. Gone is the fussiness of the Danger Mouse production of the last three albums (don’t get me wrong I loved that sound and those albums, but it was time to move on).

There are no innovations here, just good rocking music. The dirty riffs have just enough sweetening (a keyboard here, a backup vocalist there) to go down easy. The Black Keys remind me of AC/DC – not that they sound like them – but that they have found a signature groove and consistently delivered quality rock music for nearly twenty years now. This is just another reliable chapter in the Black Keys story.

If you like big dumb guitar rock from the 70s (James Gang, ZZ Top, and T-Rex for example) you will love “Let’s Rock.”