In a sold-out show at Irving Plaza, jazz-funk quartet Hiatus Kaiyote provided a soundtrack to fuck to. Or that’s how comedian Hannibal Buress described it in so many words as he introduced the Melbourne group Thursday night. He couldn’t believe this music was “for white people.” Fair enough. There’s a base level of pretention that comes with describing your sound as “future soul” or dreaming up song titles like “Mobius Streak” and “Shaolin Monk Motherfunk,” backed by equally recondite lyrics. But for Hiatus Kaiyote, intellect meets sensuality, sacrificing neither feeling nor fu¬¬nk.

Many of Hiatus’ lyrics evoke the primal, even as they bestow spiritual enlightenment. “Nakamarra sweet red earth will hold you/ Like the strength you bless to me/ True we engage humility, watch me struggle with our words/ However truthful they may be/ We’ll see in time, opening our hearts/ And nurturing our minds to shine/ I love you,” frontwoman Naomi “Nai Palm” Saalfield sang Thursday night in “Nakamarra”—a song which lost out on the Grammy for Best R&B Performance in 2014.

That’s one of two Grammy nominations Hiatus has garnered; the other was “Breathing Underwater,” also for Best R&B Performance, lost to The Weeknd’s “Earned It” in 2016. Indeed, the quartet’s powerful combinations of soul, funk, hip-hop, modern jazz, world and electronic music have won acclaim from notables like Questlove and Prince. At Irving Plaza, the group was so evidently in command that they seemed to lull the audience into a trance. At one point Nai Palm noted that it was “like a fucking library” in the room; at another, she suggested that the heat might be getting to everyone.

As the band blasted full force past an hour runtime, it was more likely that their sheer energy had knocked the audience a bit silly. Layer upon dizzying layer of sound zigged and zagged from Paul Bender (bass), Simon Mavin (keyboard) and Perrin Moss (percussion). Each song told a story, constructed from architectures at once separate and interwoven—vignettes or variations on a theme. And while moments for rest and reflection are evident on the group’s recorded albums—Tawk Tomahawk (2012) and Choose Your Weapon (2015)—they seemed not to translate live. If each song made an exhausting journey, perhaps what was wanted was a more dynamic arc to the set.

But this is punctilious. Nai Palm embraced her role as full-fledged entertainer throughout the night, all at once embodying rugged toughness, ethereality, sex and fashion, as the rest of the trio played with workmanlike virtuosity. A devilish smile, a sequin jacket and a tendency to accent phrases with a spastic thrust into her guitar were the authoritative visual accoutrements to Nai Palm’s mighty vocals.

The audience revived as the singer’s professed-favorite song unfolded. “Borderline with My Atoms” was expansive and transporting—a much needed moment to breathe. “Melt into the other world,” she invited in a honey smooth strain. The vocal melody pushed forward over prominent cymbals and jazz piano, evoking a spiritual encounter between Nai Palm and a Native American man. “This song is about the time I watched my Apache friend transform into a bear before my eyes,” she explained with a knowing smile.

Maybe this image best distills Hiatus’ music. They delivered a performance that was metamorphic, regenerative: a procreative force to fuck to.

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  1. DW

    August 16, 2016 at 12:52 am

    I was there, and i think Hannibal Burgess meant “four white people” and not “for white people.”


    • DW

      August 16, 2016 at 12:54 am

      “Buress” damm autocorrect…


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