Author: Jake Steinmetz
This past Sunday, saxophonist Kamasi Washington and his supporting cast of musicians lit ablaze the Asbury Hall stage at Babeville. He played to a sold out auditorium, in a genre that has long lacked a contemporary icon. Washington has bestowed new life to modern jazz since his 2015 release of the critically acclaimed LP The Epic—along with two subsequent EPs and another full length album. His performance Sunday shattered all expectations.
Perhaps his music’s most admirable facet is that it has bucked the trend that many American artists fall prey to: that a musician’s work must completely redefine a genre and provide something entirely novel, even if short-lived and tacky. Much of Washington’s music could have easily been contemporaneous to transcendental jazz legends like John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, Alice Coltrane, and others. His music simultaneously pays homage to the greats preceding him, while also offering a sound that is distinctly his own.
Sunday’s audience seemed to mirror the cultural bridge he has constructed by transcending epochs, with attendees encompassing baby-boomers, millennials, and even younger audience members. Whether it was the figurative (or literal) torch passed between boomers and millennials, one thing was clear: witnessing Washington and his bandmates play was intoxicating.
The band’s outpouring felt transcendental, as if an alternate reality was conjured that made indistinguishable the real and the metaphysical. While Washington’s band is unnamed on the ticket (they simply perform as “Kamasi Washington”) make no mistake, they more than complemented their namesake.
Singer Patrice Quinn not only belted powerful and sometimes political lyrics, but often provided backing vocals that established her voice as a contributing instrument to the ensemble, while dancing as if offering praise to some higher being. Although each musician’s solos were spectacular, those of drummers Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr. brought the audience to their feet, and were described by one audience member as “almost heavy metal.”
Trombonist Ryan Portar (also a composer and arranger) and flutist/soprano saxophonist Rickey Washington themselves embodied the conversational aspect that is quintessential jazz, weaving their melodic dialogue into some mystical fabric. Bassist Ben Williams oscillated between the upright and electric bass, as Masayuki “Big Yuki” Hirano also layered textures only appreciable in person.
There was no shortage of awe in Washington’s own performance, needless to say. If you are like me and know jazz only as some foregone lore found in my dad’s vinyl collection, take some giant steps and go see this living legend if ever you are able.