April 17, 2017

kamasi

Alex Dwyer doesn’t get why anyone would want to be the Pope of anything.

In Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning film Moonlight, there’s a scene where Little stands in the hallway of his project apartment building. His mother screams at him next to walls spackled with pink neon light from the bedroom behind her. We aren’t privy to the verbiage of their conversation, a score sits in its place. All we’re left with is her moving mouth and then given space to make our assumptions based on the film’s flow up to that point. Composer Nicholas Britell’s string section quickens through the shouting, then abruptly stops as young Little—later Chiron, then Black—raises his previously lowered eyes to shoot his mother a glance that says more than the best written dialogue ever could.

This one shot is as close to a truth as we can ask for in film—creator and viewer on equal footing in the meaning-making.

Last week, saxophonist and jazz pharaoh Kamasi Washington released his first song in two years though a thirteen-minute short film called “Truth.” It’s directed by A.G. Rojas—who orchestrated a police brawl with Run The Jewels on their “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck),” gave us a ride along with a rugged boxer in Gil-Scott Heron “I’ll Take Care of You,” and let Earl Sweatshirt properly introduce himself via raw-egg smoothie in “Earl”. It opens with a scene reminiscent of Jenkins and Britell’s work.

A young boy, not unlike Little, stands shirtless in a well-lit room, with comfy carpet below his bare feet, gazing curiously into some water he’s cupped in his hands. Washington’s West Coast Get Down crewmate, Cameron Graves strikes the first few piano notes, followed by Ronald Bruner Jr. and Tony Austin lightly waking their drum kits, then Miles Mosley strumming his upright. Solange Knowles’s longtime guitarist Matt Haze plucks the first three chords of the composition’s core melody. We see a mother observe the boy with an equally measured curiosity from her place on a cushy couch.

After a moment, the boy—played by rapper Boogie’s sonwashes himself with the water and we dive into the film’s self-contained galaxy of whispered moments: a dress on a mannequin in a quiet field; two people wrapped in a cloth on a dimly lit beach; and men wrestling playfully in a ring made of flowers.

Our eyeballs process these soft images while Washington’s sweeping arrangement—other WCGDers, trombonist Ryan Porter and keyboardist Brandon Coleman, an 8-piece string section, the collective sighs of a 9-voice choir, and Terrace Martin’s alto sax yin to Washington’s tenor yang—gradually builds.

For a full three and half minutes, Rojas gives us only a black and white room. Two men read newspapers on opposite sides of the space, a third observing, with only a coat rack and a couple ladders for company. Slowly, Washington and his tenor and Rojas and his dolly draw us toward the man in the far corner, berating us about something we’ve always known yet seem to forget faster each day. For just a split second at the end of this marathon shot, we see the man is Ricky Washington: flutist, frequent collaborator, and Kamasi’s father. He’s there to remind us what it was we forgot.

On display through June 11 at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Biennial in New York, “Truth” is A.G. Rojas’s answer to Khalil Joseph’s short film “m.A.A.d.,” which had a run at MOCA in Downtown L.A. and featured Kendrick when he was still just a Cardinal in Compton. The video is only the final musical piece of Washington’s 37-minute “Harmony of Difference” suite, with an assortment of other Rojas visuals featured in the exhibition. Thankfully there is an EP forthcoming via Young Turks for those of us who won’t make it to the Whitney. In the meantime, watch and listen as Rojas and Kamasi continue to make the case for jazz’s commercial and creative viability