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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Dr. Professor and the Washington Family

The first set was a full 90 minutes long. Tenor and Baritone saxophonist Donald Washington explored the lower ends of his instruments in order to create solos with a distinct groove and swing to them, while at the same time exploring outward. His wife, Faye Washington, played alto saxophone and flute solos often floating high over her husband's explorations, in what felt like of moments  transcendental ecstasy. The Washington's son, Kevin, played drums and percussion. The second percussionist was the legendary Dr. Professor himself, Leonard King.

This was a concert organized by Leonard King that featured the Washington family and took place on June 12 at a South Minneapolis cultural center.

The interplay of the two drummers was so telepathic and full of so much bottom, I did not realize that there was no bass until a good 20 minutes into the show. 

Kevin Washington had a more African based kit than did Leonard. He played bongos and so forth, in addition to a cymbal and bass drum. Leonard King is the snappiest drummer I have ever heard. The snars pop like hail, and he makes liberal use of the cymbals, creating (may I use this exclusively melodic term) glissando after glissando. And when the music gets most intense, Leonard's face brightens with an enormous smile, that stretches his mouth to its very limits.

That first 90-minute set, after a short unaccompanied vocal by Faye, moved into an advanced bop feel, then into some bluesy feeling music. In the middle of the set, the four players broke into a vocal quartet. They rarely sang 'words', but instead conveyed feeling through moans, sounds, and boppish runs. Kevin Washington came up with some very interesting moments during this highly spiritual section.

It was a rich set which seamlessly shifted from blues, to Africanist percussion, to bop, to gospel, to dissonance and back again. Since I knew that Leonard had been writing some suites, I asked him if he had written the piece. He said, "We all did, just now."

What I had just heard was completely free jazz.

I am no novice to jazz or to free jazz. But I have never encountered free jazz in which the players paid such close attention to each other. I assumed that they were working from arrangements, but they were not. Where did this come from? These musicians, before moving to Minneapolis, had been playing together for decades in the Detroit area. They have come to know each others' habits and proclivities to such an extent that an arranger or composer is superfluous. They can arrange themselves, on the spot, freely.

Aside from the tightness of the group, its other standout characteristic was its ability to call on gospel, soul, and blues feel. Although there was some dissonance,  never have I encountered less dissonance in a free jazz context. This was the 'deepest' (if you will allow me the word) free jazz I have ever heard.

Donald and Faye Washington have chosen the humble life of educators and local musicians, in spite of their obvious ability to pursue music full time. The road, apparently, was not for them. For years, Donald has taught in the Minneapolis Public Schools. He has three albums out: Donald Washington and the New Day Blues Band: This Cat is Out, Donald Washington and the New Day Blues Band, — both of which feature his family — and, brand new, is a solo saxophone effort entitled Pictures From the Studio. Contact me if you would like to buy one of these albums. 

Leonard King has been a more active national and international jazz artist. His latest effort is with theSouthpaw Isle Steelband. A more traditionally jazz album is entitled Extending the Language, which features a trio that includes James Carter on saxophones and Gerard Gibbs on organ.

Perhaps some of you are wondering if "James Carter" is the James Carter — one of the hottest jazz artists on the scene today and perhaps destined to be rated as one of the greatest reed players of all time. The answer is yes, indeed. Donald Washington during his years in Detroit was James Carter's mentor, and Leonard King also served as his teacher for a time.

And the trio on Extending the Language  is the exact same trio that appears on two James Carter albums:Out of Nowhere and Live At Baker's Keyboard Lounge. King takes the same trio in different, more eclectic directions than does Carter.

You can find some of Leonard's cd's at CD Baby

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