A Pretty OK Song: "Street Fighter Mas" - Kamasi Washington
Dreams have a funny habit of falling away and fading out. In high school, I was certain that I would go to a performing-arts college to study the jazz saxophone. Life intervened, though and that dream wilted slowly as I majored in chemistry and searched for that mystical "good job."
Then, last Monday, I went to a funky bar in Bristol that hosts live jazz performances. The house band kicked things off before individuals got up to perform, open-mic style. As I let the music wash over me, my old dream came flooding back, but it was over as soon as it started.
I wasn't quite ready to let go, though, so I went looking for good sax music--which is how I found my way to Kamasi Washington. Washington, a native of Inglewood, California, is a performer and composer perhaps most notable for playing the tenor saxophone (the best saxophone, in my ever-so-humble opinion) on Kendrick Lamar's groundbreaking album To Pimp A Butterfly.
I didn't do anything special to find him; I was digging through YouTube playlists when I first heard "Street Fighter Mas," from his 2018 album Heaven and Earth. But as soon as the funky synths hit my ears, I knew I was along for the ride.
"Street Fighter Mas" is almost fully instrumental, which has never bothered me but may be a put-off to some listeners. If nothing else, it's outstanding background music that you can listen to to stimulate your brain without hurting your focus. The track opens with a neat drum fill and a lively beat. Then the synths blare in, with their otherworldly mix of chunky bass and top-end wah, and you know you're hooked. The instrumentation builds to the chorus, which features Washington's saxophone and some hymn-like choral ahhhs.
Washington's sax solo comes next, showcasing what makes him an iconic player. It may be a cliche, but he makes the instrument sing. His use of dynamics is notable -- the saxophone can knock the roof off a building, but that power isn't as special if it's not contrasted with quieter moments. And I especially love that he mixes in some notes that are intentionally off-key; he conjures the image of someone who is figuring things out as he goes, rather than hitting a perfect, sanitized scale. His rat-tat-tat staccato bursts are also exceptional.
After the solo concludes, we enter the chorus once more before a trombone solo hits. It's a nice solo, but I've never been a big trombone guy. It's never felt as melodic or memorable to me as the other brass instruments. [Editor's note: Go listen to Trombone Shorty's album Backatown or anything by Big Sam's Funky Nation, then come back and tell me the trombone isn't memorable.]
An impeccable trumpet solo follows. The dynamics are great, the note choices are interesting, the motifs are clear. Then, the chorus repeats, winding up to a fever pitch before the track calms down and comes to a close.
I love the instrumentation, but the thing that strikes me about "Street Fighter Mas" is how new and fresh it feels. It's not stuffy or difficult; it's fun. A major part of why I stopped playing the saxophone was that I didn't see a future I wanted with the instrument, but Kamasi Washington laid out a clear and powerful vision for where jazz saxophone fits into the landscape of modern music, and I have to thank him for that.
Until next week.