OAKLAND — During his Noise Pop Music Festival performance Friday, British keyboardist Kamaal Williams proved that the ghost of Miles Davis still haunts jazz. And if the capacity crowd was any indication, the performance also suggested a growing interest in a new generation of jazz players.
Williams’ trio, members of the Katalyst Collective, delivered an intense performance at The Starline Social Club. During his set’s long improvisational jams, the fast-paced musical interplay was like a conversation among the musicians, and the grins on their faces attested to the fact that the band was having a great time.
Williams began the performance seated at his keyboards flanked by bassist Marlon Spears and drummer Greg Paul. Williams coaxed futuristic sounds from his synth while psychedelic graphics played on screens beside the stage. When Spears and Paul joined him, the trio locked into powerfully funky syncopated groove. This was not your father’s jazz.
The trio played a number of songs off Williams’ 2018 album, The Return, including “Salaam.” The performance included “Strings of Light,” from Williams’ other project, Yussef Kamaal’s album Black Focus. Though he is clearly the band’s leader, much of the time the keyboardist was simply backing up his virtuosic rhythm section. At one point a series of keyboard stabs served as the perfect metronome for Spears’ shredding bass playing and Paul’s elastic sense of time.
Williams’ solos tended to be more atmospheric, often consisting of washes of synthesizer sounds that bubbled and dripped with electronic effects. The rhythm section, on the other hand, exploded into every solo. Paul, in his lightning-fast drumming, was able to mimic some of the rhythmic breakdowns found in dubstep. Spears’ jaw-dropping bass playing bubbled and popped in the groove. During another song, Paul’s drumming was reminiscent of the programmed beats heard in electronica. Williams’ array of synthesizers allowed him to call up anything from Pink-Floyd-like tones to old Fender Rhodes sounds to whale songs.
Williams and his group are part of burgeoning new jazz scene in London combining the psychedelic funk of Miles Davis’ ’70s albums with more modern instrumentation, borrowing liberally from other genres like dubstep, hip-hop and funk. The genre, which not too long ago seemed destined for obscurity, suddenly seems to have a new life.
The show began with the Oakland band Outer Embassy. The trio delivered a polished set of mid-tempo numbers that walked the line between pop and jazz. The band had just finished recording its second album a couple of weeks ago, and the members explained that their set would feature this new material exclusively.
The songs featured three-part power harmonies in places and the solid rhythm section provided the perfect foundation for the band’s sophisticated song-craft. During the cheerful set, band members asked the crowd to show their support for Oakland’s striking teachers.
Next, Indian-born DJ, producer and vocalist Jitwam took the stage behind a DJ table and delivered a powerful set of hip-hop songs. After the first song, Jitwam was joined by a trumpeter and trombonist who occasionally soloed over his programmed beats. Jitwam stalked the stage with the microphone, sometimes rapping, sometimes singing, sometimes serving as his own hype man. Jitwam played songs from his self-titled album, ज़ितम सिहँ, including “I Ain’t Scared Of No Devil.”
Each of the three acts performing Friday night had their own take on this new genre-hopping style of jazz. The variety of approaches in the performances and the intensity of the crowd’s reaction suggest that jazz as a genre may have a lot more life left in it.