Have you ever experienced greatness and realized as much when it unfolded before you?
Have you ever experienced greatness and realized as much when it unfolded before you? Saxophonist Kamasi Washington and his band of musicians may very well be the most exciting thing happening in jazz music right now, not to mention any genre. Touring in support of last year’s masterpiece triple album, The Epic, Washington put on a show that fans will likely remember for a very long time.
Things got exciting even before Washington blew one note through his saxophone. A member of the Jazz Journalism Association kicked things off by presenting Washington with a little glass sculpture, naming him the group’s Up and Coming Artist of the Year. During the two-hour performance, Washington proved to be not only a consummate musician but an engaging raconteur and egalitarian who allowed each of the members that flanked him on-stage their time to shine.
A Kamasi Washington show feels like a family experience, not only because the man’s father, Rickey Washington, plays alongside him on the soprano sax. Strangers all around me were high-fiving and patting each other on the back in disbelief during one show-stopping moment after another, from bassist Miles Mosley’s funky solos to a percussion conversation between drummers Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner. Even those of us who dislike drum solos found the exchange a sight to behold.
What is most amazing about Washington is how he synthesizes the sounds and strains of so many artists and sub-genres in jazz to make them his own. There’s acid jazz, bebop, experimental happening there. We can hear snatches of Miles and Coltrane. Some Sun Ra and some Ornette. There’s even funk. Some of Washington’s songs wouldn’t sound out of place on the Shaft soundtrack.
A spine-tingling moment came midway through the set. During “Malcolm’s Theme,” which features Ossie Davis’ eulogy to Malcolm X sung over a composition by Terence Blanchard, vocalist Patrice Quinn helped Washington turn up the emotional fire. As her singing and the music became more and more intense, she ended the song by letting out a wail that echoed all the pain and confusion found in Davis’ words. It gave me goosebumps and the guy next to me shouted and gestured that his mind had just been blown.
Such vibrant, living music begs to be played live. Although The Epic was one of the best albums of 2015, nothing compares to hearing it in concert. During the summer of 2015, I had the chance to see Washington play two sets at Pickathon, both of which easily dominated as festival-best. A year and a half later, the band is even better. After a curtain call, Washington and his friends returned to the stage to play the theme to a video game he was playing a few hours earlier in a Portland arcade.
“Y’all don’t know that song,” he laughed when they were finished and walked off the stage. We were all too transfixed from the two hours prior to even care.