Saxophonist and bandleader Kamasi Washington is an impressive figure, seemingly in all the right places to simultaneously push the genre of jazz kicking and screaming into 2016, whilst also interesting a swathe of folks who previously had no interest in the genre. From touring with Snoop Dog to being Kendrick Lamar’s backing band on To Pimp a Butterfly, to his solid 3 hour release The Epic on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label, there’s a lot of interest – and deservedly so.
All of which explains why The Prince of Wales was ridiculously packed this evening for the robed Kamasi, and his ensemble of trombone, keys, bass, backing vocals and of course two drummers. It quickly became apparent that whilst Kamasi is without doubt worthy of the attention and deserved of all the praise, the band are the story, childhood friends, growing up together and playing with an ease and humour that is rare. For Kamasi every song had a story, from being a kick ass three year old drummer at his birthday party before having his drumming ass handed to him by Thundercat’s 1.5 year old brother Ronald Bruner Jr – which was when he switched to sax, to their admiration of their other drummer Tony Austin, a few years older, who Washington remembers, gasp, had a girl stay over at his house all night. Through these stories Washington makes it clear we’re dealing with a family band, which he further emphasised by bringing up his father Ricky Washington who played flute and soprano sax for the entire performance.
There’s a swagger and a beauty to Washington’s ensemble, a kind of west coast spiritual cool, a soulful jazz that’s definitely not closed off to funk and hip hop influences. Early on Washington told us they recorded eight albums during the recording of The Epic, and we all gasped on cue, understanding that this is pretty mindblowing even if you were to consider the Epic as three separate albums. He chose to highlight this by playing ‘Abraham’, a tune from bassist Miles Mosley’s forthcoming album, warning us that Mosely doesn’t play the bass like anyone else, which Mosley demonstrated by treating his bass with fx, wah pedal and offering some incredible soulful vocals and dexterous playing that was actually the highlight of the evening. You can see a link to Abraham here.
Perhaps the other secret weapon was keyboardist, Brandon Coleman, or according to Washington ‘Professor Boogie’, who never stopped smiling for the entire set, and the smile only grew larger when he had occasion to reach for his Moog keytar or play his hyper 70’s funk track ‘Spaceship’. In fact his desire to repeatedly reach for the keytar (aka Moog Liberation) served to push Washington’s Epic tunes into near fusion territory. Though to be fair there was a liberal dose of improvisation in the air as the tunes evolved and dissolved in front of our eyes, controlled almost serenely by Washington’s gentle, almost understated stage presence.
In fact Washington, who was chatty, good humoured and seriously digging his band members solos, who stayed on stage the entire time, and then blew the house down in his own tasteful, searing and mind numbing solos, is the kind of bandleader jazz music needs. He may have been the leader tonight, but he understood the weapons at his disposal, as each member seemed equally adept at taking control.
It would be remiss of me not to write about the drum off. Magnificent Seven pitted Tony Austin vs the other drummer Ronald Bruner Jr (who has also played with Suicidal Tendencies). It was incredible seeing these two artists mid flight, it was pure adrenalin breaking up the performance and allowing the drummers to strut.
As I mentioned earlier it was about everyone on that stage. Washington is an incredible instrumentalist, and perhaps that’s why he is so egoless, creating space for and clearly enjoying each of his players. This is the Wu Tang Clan of jazz, and it’s going to be fascinating as each of the eight albums appear. Epic may have been the first, and perhaps the most epic, but what tonight made clear is that this ensemble has talent to burn and seeing them as a whole is nothing short of a gift. Between Ryan Port’s incredible trombone solos, and the smoky vocals of Patrice Quin, who would often just wordlessly enunciated alongside the horns, there is no weak link.
When the show finished to extended applause, all of the band members just wandered out into the crowd, shook hands, signed autographs, posed for pictures, and told musical secrets for over an hour. Welcome to jazz in 2016.