in performance: kamasi washington

kamasi washington.

“Diversity is something to be celebrated.”

That was the message of Kamasi Washington, one of the most celebrated young jazzmen of his generation, as his time-tripping performance last night at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati headed for home. To bolster his words, the tenor saxophonist and an industrious seven member band that included his father, launched into “Truth,” a 15 minute treatise that combined the themes of five different tunes from his recent “Harmony of Difference” EP into a spacious, organic soul-jazz proclamation.

Washington has been a cultish sensation since the spring of 2015 when two key recordings established his distinction as a jazz artist while simultaneously redefining what that title even meant. His saxophone work on Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” gave him almost immediate credibility among the pop and hip hop mainstream when the record was released that March. But it was Washington’s own “The Epic” – a sprawling three hour, three disc manifesto of bop, funk, soul and spiritually inclined pop issued two months later – that made jazz critics take notice.

Undeniably jazz in design and execution, “The Epic” avoided many of the music’s trademarks. There was swing, to be sure, but much of the music operated with a more rock and soul sense of groove, all of which played out during the Cincinnati performance. Thematically, “Leroy and Lanisha,” was introduced as a Peanuts-inspired piece that re-imagined the iconic comic strip being set in Washington’s California hometown of Inglewood. But with father Rickey Washington guesting on soprano sax and longtime trombonist Ryan Porter aiding in the orchestration of the band’s front line, the groove was largely left to keyboardist Brandon Coleman to percolate through clavinet-style riffs that, once locked in, sounded less like jazz-funk and more like 1980-era Talking Heads – a neat trick, since Washington’s group did not include a guitarist.

What has likely made Washington such a critical favorite over the past two years (the New York Times in 2016 dubbed him “the most talked-about jazz musician since Wynton Marsalis arrived on the New York scene three decades ago”) hasn’t been so much an allegiance to jazz tradition but a willingness to expand on its lyrical, rhythmic and even spiritual possibilities.

The Cincinnati performance emphasized all of that, but in a very old school way. It possessed the feel of urban-inspired jazz from the early 1970’s by touching on very modest electric embellishments (mostly though the Rhodes-style keyboard colors supplied by Coleman) and reserved vocal embellishments (supplied by a choir on “The Epic” and “Harmony of Difference” but by the singular voice of Patrice Quinn onstage). What resulted recalled the music Blue Note Records issued around 1971, when its preference turned away from the bop of a previous generation to R&B-enhanced pre-fusion music. Think Bobby Hutcherson crossed with Sun Ra, but with saxophone leading the way and get a sense of where Washington is coming from.

The Cincinnati show was also remarkable for its ensemble feel. Washington may have been the leader, but solos were often catered more to a group-devised groove as opposed to any individual grandstanding.

That was especially evident during “Humility” (which, along with “Truth,” came from “Harmony of Difference”). Here, father-and-son Washington along with Porter, summoned a joyously fierce brass charge that played neatly off of a driving piano lead from Coleman that possessed the percussive boldness of early ‘70s era McCoy Tyner. As a result, funk and soul were de-emphasized in favor of driving swing.

While Washington’s embrace of diversity was underscored through the performance’s stylistically broad jazz scope, it was placed on full thematic display in the show-closing “The Rhythm Changes.” As sung by Quinn, the lyrics served as internal and social affirmations, even though the last word went to Washington with a tenor sax solo that bounced about with boppish freshness and unassuming, cordial accessibility.

Kamasi Washington performs in the region again at 8 p.m. Dec. 10 at Headliners Music Hall, 1386 Lexington Rd. in Louisville. Tickets: $32-$95. Call 502-584-8088 or go to headlinerslouisville.com/event/kamasi-washington.



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