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What I learned from my weekend with Ghost Note & Knower

I’ve weighed in on an ongoing social media battle over the past few weeks, one with a theme that always gets me a little bit down – the whole “There’s no great music being made anymore” mantra.

It’s a frustrating house of mirrors, because it can't be be won. Generally speaking, the 35-and-older folks on the “New music is terrible" side have grown frustrated by, and overwhelmed with, the abundance of less-than-inspired new sounds that dominate television broadcasts, from industry award shows to high-profile sporting events, advertisements to soundtracks for TV dramas. They’ve thrown in the towel, and decided to focus on the music they loved when they were younger, music they consider to be more inventive and adventurous and certainly more enduring.

On the other side lurk younger listeners who have never really known a world where music wasn’t everywhere all the time, all of it attainable with the minimal effort demanded by a mouse click or a smart phone swipe. They don’t want to hear previous generations insisting that they’ve missed out on a time when popular music was infused with meaning, when being a musician meant mastering a musical instrument, and a guy like Drake or a band like Imagine Dragons would not be selling out arenas with shows that are either “Live Karaoke” or overblown, metronomically lock-step alt-pop-by-numbers. These younger listeners know their reality – it’s theirs, and they’ll defend it, like every generation before them.

Happily, somewhere in the demilitarized zone between these two extreme viewpoints exists a population of listeners and musicians agreeable to the notion that there is still much work to be done with popular music, and that a studied approach to the past is essential to the creation of a music of the present and the future. I spent last weekend in the company of such musicians and listeners. And they inspired me, to the point where I’m convinced that not only is there still great music out there, but there is also hope for the future of music.

On Saturday, we packed up the family and a few friends and headed east for the grand finale of Rochester’s Fringe festival, a 10-day, 25-venue affair culminating in a headlining set from Knower on the outdoor main stage at the junction of Gibb Street and East Avenue, adjacent to the Eastman School of Music.  The band – at its core, the Los Angeles-born duo of multi-instrumentalist Louis Cole and singer Genevieve Artadi – features a tight community of rotating touring band members, principal among them bassist Tim Lefebrve, keyboardist Dennis Hamm,  and saxophonist Sam Gendel, all of whom were on the Rochester gig Saturday.

Describing what Knower does is dicey, because the music is so fresh, unexpected and present-tense, and therefore, comparing it to predecessors or peers is not possible. You could make the case that Cole - the composer and, for this gig, the drummer – is principally concerned with making contemporary EDM, but that case is weakened by the fact that Knower is at once a funk band, an R&B band, and a pop band, and further eroded by the truth that there is jazz at the heart of things, both in terms of harmonic structure and instrumental chops.  Saturday’s show was like a living mash-up of all of these styles, one that humanized EDM’s mechanical tendencies and had no problems placing searing jazz improvisation side by side with straight electro-pop.

Following Knower’s set, we headed back to Buffalo, after chatting with Cole at the side of the stage for a bit – haranguing him to bring Knower to Buffalo as soon as possible, following the band’s coming European tour, an idea he showed enthusiasm for.

The next day may have been all about the Bills for most Buffalonians, but my mind was focused on the post-game reality – Ghost Note would be playing the Buffalo Iron Works, and we were pumped for the show, sharing in our family a love for all things related to the new music ensemble Snarky Puppy, the band called home most of the time by Ghost Note founders Robert “Sput” Searight and Nate Werth.

Still glowing from the Knower performance, I was hoping for a deepening of that feeling as a result of time spent with Sput, Werth, and their touring companions bassist Mono Neon, saxophonist Sylvester Onyejiaka and keyboardist Justin Stanton. What I got instead was a two-hour show of face-melting proportions, a percussive celebration of funk, jazz, R&B, Hip-Hop, and yes, once again, EDM, that ranks high on my list of this year’s finest shows. The crowd was not huge, but everyone there was into it, vocally so, and the band left everything it had on the stage. I was rendered fairly speechless, to the point that when the band members left the stage and walked out front to fraternize with the fans, I had a hard time putting together a coherent sentence. Happily, my son had no such problems, and soon we found ourselves deep in conversation with Sput, a man who can tell a story, whether that story be about music mentor-ship, or working with Kendrick Lamar on the game-changing “To Pimp A Butterfly” album. What a fascinating (and down-to-earth) guy.

Both the Knower and Ghost Note shows offered hyper-intelligent and virtuosic music that could also be danced to – a marriage of mind and body with soul and spirit both bands made seem effortless.  The predominantly under-30 audiences offered their full attention, were vocal, rarely picked up their cell phones (!) and yes, danced.

Next time you hear someone say there’s no great music any more, point them toward Ghost Note and Knower. They’ll thank you later.

If they don’t? Maybe they’ve just forgotten how to listen.


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