This year, Black Friday came to Kansas City with a trend-setting frenzy; but the best deals weren't at retailers. They came as a swarm of local musicians who took to the stage at venues all over town and rang in the holidays with inspiring displays of talent and grit. And at the top of the highlight reel of this weekend's events was another installment of Mark Lowrey Vs. Hip Hop, a "bigger and better" collaboration between local jazz musicians and some of the city's best MCs.
Black Friday -- as the crew referred to it this time around in honor of the "holiday" -- featured local jazz pianist Mark Lowrey at the reigns of an impressive rhythm section that would make Bennie Moten and Count Basie proud. With Ryan Lee behind the drum kit and Dominique Sanders on bass (Lowrey's "new favorite bassist to play with"), the trio effortlessly navigated singer Schelli Tolivar and emcees Les Izmore and Reach through a compositional dialogue between jazz and hip-hop. With trumpeter Hermon Mehari as the sonic cherry-on-top and DJ Ataxic filling out the show between stage sets, Black Friday blew through Crosstown Station in a smoky, hot musical haze that was at once reminiscent of the jazz days of yonder yet indebted to the call-and-response nature of contemporary hip-hop.
The show started with a short jazz segment that morphed almost immediately into Jay-Z's "Show Me What You Got," a track off of his 2006 Kingdom Come album that features a prominent afro-jazz saxophone loop and lent itself perfectly to the Black Friday ensemble's style. As Mehari trumpet and the vibraphones talked each other through "Hip Hop is Alive" and "My Life", the MCs busted out a lyrical treat for the steadily growing audience -- a re-working of Notorious B.I.G.'s "Big Poppa".
The crowd seemed to collectively smile and start dancing at once, and Black Friday was now in full swing. As the stage fog grew thicker the ensemble got musically tighter, and by the time the first set ended with an arrangement of Miles Davis' "Blue in Green," one couldn't help but understand that the Crosstown stage was playing host to some of Kansas City's most talented and innovative musicians playing the local circuit today.
After a short break, the group gathered once again, opening the second set with a J Dilla medley -- a particularly moving moment for this music journalist, as I owe so much of my early music education to the discovery of Dilla-produced staples such as Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Common. History and nostalgia were heavy in the air, and as I looked around the crowd (by now nearly full), it seemed that everyone was lost in their own reverence for the late, great J Dilla, whether they knew it or not.
Yet perhaps the most inspired moment of the night came when the ensemble performed Common's "The Light." By now Lowrey was out of his chair, bent over his keys and stomping his feet to the beat. Lee was sweating, Mehari had a huge smile on his face, and many people in the crowd closed their eyes as they sang along with Tollivar, There is a light that shines, special for you and me. It was an epic culmination to a night that schooled Kansas City on music history and lyric interpretation, and brought together the best of African-American musical traditions in an impressive homage that made the Black Friday shopping binge seem irrelevant and pitiful.
With Lowrey at the lead, the group reprised "Show Me What You Got" during the encore, and had Crosstown allowed it and the musicians had the energy, the show could have gone on long into the night like a storied jam session. I don't think anyone in attendance would have minded.
Thanks to the willingness of musicians like Lowrey and Mehari to challenge what jazz music can be, and the seemingly effortless lyric abilities of Izmore and Reach, music -- the kind that institutions such as the 18th and Vine district are built on -- is alive and well in Kansas City.
Show Me What You Got
Hip Hop Is Alive
I Mean You
All I Know
Blue in Green/Gotta Get By
Dilla Medley (Prelude, Fall in Love, Stakes is High)
How to Fise
Encore: Reprise, Show Me What You Got
Overheard in the Crowd: "This is so intense. I have to go smoke a cigarette and try to comprehend what is happening on that stage."
Critic's Bias: My first gig as a radio show host was "Breakfast for Beatlovers" on KJHK, and I spent many subsequent years developing an affinity for jazz-driven beats and lyrically intelligent hip hop.
Note: My camera was stolen at Crosstown Station. Sorry for the lack of photos; you'll have you use your imagination to see these fiery jazz jams.