Kamasi Washington’s music is both familiar and revolutionary

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Kamasi Washington (left). Photos by Lisa Sproull (scroll down for the complete gallery below)

It’s a rare thing for a jazz musician to reach the breadth of popular recognition that L.A.-based saxophonist Kamasi Washington has enjoyed since the May 2015 release of his three-hour long boundary-pushing debut album, The Epic, but seeing him perform as he did with an eight-piece band at Metropolis last night makes it easy to see why so many have come to regard Washington — who also played and composed arrangements for Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly — as the prophet of a new era of cultural relevancy for the genre.

From the first notes of show (and album) opener “Change of the Guard,” Washington and his band was in full groove, giving the audience a high-energy, joyful and eminently powerful trip through selections pulled from The Epic including “The Rhythm Changes,” “Re Run,” “Henrietta Our Hero” (an ode to Washington’s grandmother) and “The Magnificent 7,” plus a brand-new track introduced into the set for the first time in Montreal, an instrumental hip hop jam composed by band trombonist Ryan Porter.

Early in the set, Washington called his father Rickey Washington to the stage, where he stayed for the duration of the concert, at first playing the flute before switching to the soprano saxophone. The love and respect between father and son was clear, as was the brotherly affection felt across the stage between musicians who obviously love to play together. Washington didn’t put his tenor sax down long enough to speak to the crowd at length between songs, but did take the time halfway through the show to share a few (very funny!) anecdotes with the audience — we learned that the band members grew up together in the same neighbourhood of South Central L.A. where many of them began playing music together during their high school days in the 1990’s.

Though the crowd had gathered to see Washington, the bandleader made sure to celebrate and showcase the talents of each band member, which were considerable indeed. From soulful vocalist Patrice Quinn to duelling drummers Tony Austin and Thundercat brother Ronald Bruner Jr., to keyboardist Brandon Coleman to upright bass virtuoso Miles Mosley, the set gave plenty of space for solos and improvised jams between every player on stage, leaving no doubt about the band’s calibre of musicianship and chemistry. This mastery of the art is a large part of the reason why Washington’s band has been able to so perfectly articulate the zeitgeist that’s driving the parallel trajectories of current jazz and hip hop: that is to say, Black Lives Matter and other movements of black empowerment.

Washington’s music feels both familiar, owing to its roots in the Love Supreme of Coltrane and his contemporaries, and also revolutionary due to its powerful and political thematic content, forward-facing to the triumphant place dreamed about by King, Tupac and Lamar. On top of all that, it’s hella fun to listen to — ask anyone who couldn’t help dancing throughout Washington’s two-hour set. ■

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