by Raghav Raj
photo by Daniel Sheehan
[originally published April 22, 2022]
Even before Kassa Overall and his all-star backing band stepped onto the stage at the Dionysus Disco, the atmosphere in the basement of Wilder Hall on April 12 was — much like the humid weather outside — warm and crackling with electricity. The prior hour had seen Oberlin’s own DJ Kopano on the decks, delivering a bounce-heavy set full of breathtakingly bawdy club gems that sent the sizable crowd into a sweaty, frenzied fit. By the time the quartet launched into their opening number, a frenetic remix of “Prison and Pharmaceuticals” from Overall’s 2019 debut Go Get Ice Cream and Listen To Jazz, the crowd was already warmed up; all they had to do was play.
It was the culmination of an exuberant homecoming for Kassa, who graduated from Oberlin with a Bachelors in Music in 2005, and had worked with the Jazz Society and Conservatory for a master class for students at The Cat in the Cream earlier in the day. In a way, his show at the ‘Sco was a masterclass as well — a joyous evening from one of modern jazz’s most singular voices, accompanied by his tightly-knit crew of stellar multi-instrumentalists. It was an experience as reverent as it was revelatory, a celebration of the genre’s rich history that also seemed to move solely in service of a radical, distinctly futurist vision. These contradictions are central to the music that Kassa Overall makes; throughout the night, you could often hear them in the very same breath.
Almost immediately after cracking a joke about his raps being officially sponsored by Oberlin’s jazz department, Overall proudly shouted out several members of the Conservatory faculty by name, beaming at the raucous cheers that each name garnered from the crowd. After previewing a fiery, poignant guest verse from “Jazz Is Dead” — a collaboration with Oberlin alum Theo Croker and professor Gary Bartz — over the piano riff from “Still DRE,” the band dove into their delicate rendition of Coltrane’s swooning “Naima,” as pristinely entrenched a jazz standard as they come.
Through it all, what stood out was how the band synthesized various strains of Black music to utterly transfixing effect. Helmed by Bendji Allonce’s percussion, the quartet sounded limitless, firmly in pocket whether they were playing over trap drums, stilted Dilla-esque rhythms, or a polyrhythmic patchwork evoking Fela Kuti and the sounds of Afrobeat. At certain turns — especially with Ian Fink’s racing fingers on the keyboard — they locked into a groove not far removed from the racing pulses of Detroit house titans like Moodymann or Theo Parrish. A feverish peak arrived when they covered Bartz’s 1977 song “Music Is My Sanctuary,” a loving tribute that transformed the original’s soulful jazz-funk into radiant gospel, with saxophonist Tomoki Sanders leading an anthemic call-and-response with the audience.
Stuffy purists may scoff at their delightful flair for showmanship — they careened across the stage with cowbells, shakers, and saxophones; they eagerly riled up the absolutely inexhaustible crowd with swelling crescendos and football game chants (“AYY-OHH!”); sometimes, the atmosphere felt more like a house party, especially when they brought up a few students onto the stage to dance (“I’m older than I look,” quipped Overall after a valiant, if ultimately fruitless, attempt at breakdancing) — but, quite frankly, it’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had at a concert. Within the death of jazz laid the future of jazz, playing out in front of our eyes for a wonderfully communal celebration of Black music in all its forms, unapologetically ecstatic and utterly liberatory in its sheer exuberance.