Better than: It would've been in any midtown venue.
"You on point, Reach?"
"All the time, Les."
Les Izmore and Reach's voices flowed back and forth on the stage at the Blue Room, backed by the sounds of Diverse's rich, honeyed jazz. It was a fusion that felt as natural as breathing -- but, for Kansas City, it had the glimmers of a historic moment.
After welcoming the Blue Room's full, boisterous crowd, the American Jazz Museum's poet-in-residence, Glenn North, took the stage and asked: "How many people's first time at the Blue Room is this?" About twenty people, scattered across the venue, raised their hands. "Good. That's what we want: to expand our audience," he said, smiling.
The Blue Room had Reach, Les Izmore and Diverse to thank for the full crowd lining the walls and tables of the historic venue. The local musicians gathered to pay homage to A Tribe Called Quest's seminal 1991 album, Low End Theory. "In case you haven't figured it out, I'm Q-Tip, and he's Phife," said Reach, motioning to Les Izmore.
There were a couple of notable changes to the ensemble's interpretation of the album: The lyrics to "The Infamous Date Rape" was changed to Classic example of a free style. (The track marked a freestyle from Les Izmore that blew the house away.) During "Buggin' Out," Glenn North took the stage in a newsboy cap, reading poetry that sounded like an organic extension of the music: Time is like an albino tiger.
Les Izmore's manic energy balanced Reach's meditative cool. Hermon Mahari's soulful trumpet had as much presence as another MC, and crowd members chanted lyrics, creating a chorus of sound: Like butter, baby.
The tribute was an homage to a landmark group of artists, a fresh infusion of hip-hop into Kansas City's jazz community, and convergence of scenes, ages and races. The only thing that the crowd seemed to feel awkward about was throwing hands in the air. (Apparently, the slight confusion between a hip-hop and jazz show resulted in plenty of hip-wiggling, head-nodding and shoulder-swaying, but that seemed to be the extent of the movement everyone was willing to commit to.) The grassroots feel of the gathering was augmented by the fact that the MCs sat on tall swivel chairs behind music stands laden with lyrics. (Except for Les Izmore, the incontrovertible frontman, who bubbled with infectious energy and seemed incapable of sitting still.)
"We got the rhyme! Say it like you mean it, though," said Reach, enticing the audience. "Say it with a little swag."
"Ain't no swag in 1991," corrected Les Izmore, laughing.
"I guess it's flavor in 1991," says Reach, with an eye roll.
"Can I do my verse again?" Les Izmore asked Reach, after finishing a furious burst of verse in "Check the Rhime." "I wanna do my verse again. My whole life, I've wanted to do that verse," he said into the mic, grinning fervently.
The best part of the night, though? Hearing the sound of hip-hop blasting from the Blue Room's speakers onto the frigid streets of 18th and Vine.
Critics' Notebook: Reach: "Wave your hands 'round like you just don't care. Just don't hit the person beside you." Pause. "I don't know what everybody's laughing at; that didn't just happen."
Overheard in the Crowd: Introductions, cheers and several mentions of Les Izmore's tribute to Common's Like Water for Chocolate at RecordBar last year.
Set List: Here.