Kamasi WashingtonBam!Bam!Bam! @ Arts Club 30/6/17
Liverpool finally gets it chance to welcome the shape of jazz to come: future-minded Los Angeles saxophonist KAMASI WASHINGTON. An eager crowd, recently starved of star power, file in to the syncopated funk of Idris Muhammad. From the fizz and clamour experienced on the way in, there’s a genuine sense of expectation evinced for Washington’s strain of big band jazz: but exactly how will his sprawling 2015 opus The Epic measure up to the diminishing practicalities of the live circuit?
Washington emerges from the mystery, an absolute mountain of a man with a tangibly Technicolor aura. I can’t help but think of the imposing and mercurial maestro Charles Mingus, as his frame and authority fills the stage with abundant majesty. Adorned in a lavish kimono-cum-dashiki-combo, our shamanic guide coolly wets his reed and announces we’re about to be taken on “a sort of journey”. Askim is my favourite cut from the Washington oeuvre and makes for an immediately disarming opener. Reminiscent of the melancholic melodies of Heavy Weather and, later, Coltrane’s Transition, it simmers and rasps with a deep introspection before morphing into a pyretic hard bop. Sweet-lipped trombonist Ryan Porter showcases a solo so boss that it even draws a wry smile from his band leader, and the first of much applause from an audience otherwise transfixed by sheer musicianship.
Moxie keyboard demon Brandon Coleman also catches the ear and eye, indulgently revelling in every febrile gesture he offers while demonstrably having the most fun anyone has ever had substituting a tritone. There is a palpable synergy between all of the performers tonight and the band are cooking from the get go. We are witness to a meaningful moment as Kamasi’s father, saxophonist and flautist Ricky Washington, joins the mélange of talent on stage. We’re told that, “This is the man who taught me how to play, taught me how to tie my shoes… taught me how to do just about everything.”
From one homage to another, blues standard Cherokee lifts the room further still with declarative harmony from bolstered ranks. Immortalised by Bird, this rendition utilises the delightful pipes of Patrice Quinn, who momentarily lapses from her interpretive and revelatory visual performance to deliver verse and hook in rapturous fashion. Quinn again comes to the fore on new track Black Man, a salient post-Civil Rights reminder that brings to mind the woke words and visionary interludes of Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah or Amiri Baraka’s It’s Nation Time.
There’s a rich vein of black consciousness and solidarity prominent throughout Kamasi Washington’s vibe; aside from the obvious emancipatory subtext of the genre, he channels the same Afrocentric cultural nationalism that awoke across America in the 1970s. Overt in aesthetic, this is refracted more subtly in the synthesis of his output, a unity of jazz and the music it has since inspired. As Washington justifies the excess of both drummers, a dialogue between the two percussionists ensues and a fluid arrangement of Re Run Home brings us on home. The Epic is every bit as ambitious and every bit as mesmerising in the live arena as it is on the record – but whether Washington can usher in a more sagacious era of spiritual jazz, only time will tell.