August 1, 2022

Sons of Kemet / Makaya McCraven / L'Rain played Central Park's SummerStage

An incredible line-up featuring the new vanguards of jazz came to Central Park's SummerStage on Sunday evening for a night of prophetic wonder and excitement.

SummerStage assembled a stacked bill on Sunday to bring the best news minds of jazz to New York's Central Park. Danielle Ponder started things off early on and I arrived only in time to hear her close out her set with a stunning cover of Radiohead's "Creep." It was a quick moment, but it was instantly clear that her powerhouse vocals deserve undeniable attention and that a brilliant career could be on her horizon. Before the song she mentioned that she recently quit her job as an attorney to focus on music full-time and with that mind-blowing cover, it felt like there should be no question that her future should be one full of rich talents and hopefully she becomes a common name in the scene.

L'Rain was up next, her ambient styling bringing a calm, serene feeling and vibe to the evening, her lush sound settling in nicely as the clouds covered the sun and gave us a slight break from the heat. Her deep, sultry vocals were a great match for the gentle sax, bumping bass, and tranquil melodies. "This is an exchange of energy and we derive as much from you as you do from us" she told the crowd as she asked for undivided attention and for those in the crowd to refrain from talking during her set. Sadly, many didn't follow through with her ask, but her moving tunes were enough to slightly suspend reality and transport the audience to a new realm.

Makaya McCraven brought his incredible band to the stage next for the first of the double-headlining performances of the night and within seconds, his captivating set took things to a new level. Playing a lot from last year's excellent Deciphering the Message, McCraven was a true force behind the drums, driving the set forward with impeccable beats and rhythms while his stellar band captured blissful grooves to round out their sound. While he was in fine form as the leader of the band, Matt Gold on guitar was another sonic force onstage and offered up supreme talent to bolster the vivacious sounds. Brandee Younger, who dazzled earlier this year with her fantastic singles "Unrest I / II," played an exquisite harp adding mesmerizing textures to the group's mind-bending sound while Joel Ross dominated the vibraphone to illuminate the night with newfound pleasures of soaring bliss. The whole band was locked in tight and their wild flourishes only enhanced the overall performance, never once outshining other members on stage and taking their prime place for solos only to fall back, perfectly in line with their surroundings, to culminate in something truly triumphant.

Even after an impressive showing from McCraven and company, it was clear that the night belonged to Sons of Kemet for what was probably their last New York show. Leading the charge was Shabaka Huntchings on saxophone, the disciple of the London jazz scene and the leader of numerous rising groups, who never faltered in his performances and persevered with unwavering talent that put his skills to the test and proved that he's earned his spot at the top of the genre. Drummers Tom Skinner, who will now devote his time to his new band with Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood (the Smile), and Seb Rochford were relentless with their fast-paced beats and rhythms, driving the night with serious passion. Their polyrhythms were next-level and kept the entire crowd bouncing along as the skronk of Theon Cross' tuba made for hip-shaking moments that catapulted the energy into the cosmos. While Hutchings is perhaps the defacto-leader, Cross spent plenty of the night in the spotlight, blowing minds and receiving roaring cheers from the crowd as his gurgling solos were felt deep within, grounding the band's set while Hutchings balanced it out with his bumping sax stutters. Two drummers, a saxophonist, and a tuba player make for a pretty unconventional quartet, but these visionaries created something incredibly special and uniquely their own. If this truly is the end of the group, they're going out on a high note when there still feels like a bright future in front of them. To know that they could still keep pushing the needle in terms of modern, afro-future jazz, but are electing to pursue other paths is both respectable, but also heartbreaking. Seeing them bring their craft to life only confirms that they were able to tap into something special and we're lucky that they shared it with so many people. After Hutchings and Cross each performed solo on stage while the rest of the group basked in their respective glories, the band cam back for one final attack on stage, delivering a final blow to the night and one last spark which got everyone grooving one last time. 

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