Kamasi Washington: a defiant cry from a jazz star in his prime

Kamasi Washington’s father, Rickey, joins the seven-piece band on stage at the Sydney Opera House. Photograph: Daniel Boud

LA saxophonist evokes Black Lives Matter in a musical sermon on the mount emanating from a core of melodic through-lines

14 March 2018 | Nathan Dunne | The Guardian

“Emerging onstage with his band among shards of muted light, Kamasi Washington steps up to the microphone. He is dressed in his signature dashiki overcoat and sparkling medallion. “We are about to go on a little journey together. Are you ready to go?”

When the band strikes up to play Change of the Guard, from 2015’s
breakout 172-minute triple-album The Epic, there is nothing little about the sound. It is like being caught on a revolving platform and consistently dunked – at pointed intervals – into huge vats of wet paint: ochre, azure, crimson, vermillion, auburn, bisque, ivory, feldgrau and the inevitable midnight blue.

As one emerges soaked in the colours, and the platform revolves, the melodies that draw around are thick and peaty, forming pools at the feet that slowly feed out over the edges in glassy rivulets.

Jazz Night In America features Kamasi Washington and the music of The Epic at its release party, and in its full glory. From the Regent Theater in Downtown L.A., Washington presents his new album with his working band, a choir, a string section and plenty of special guests.

His music is cosmic in the grandest sense, a sermon on the mount emanating from a core of melodic through-lines out into the expanse of the stars. What makes for such a dense and passionate sound is not only Washington’s bright tenor saxophone, a Selmer Mark VI, but the presence of two drummers, Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr, both cornered on either side of the stage behind giant kits.

In between them is the rest of his seven-piece band, and just when things sound like they can’t get any heavier, Washington reveals there’s more: “I want to introduce y’all to someone special, the man who taught me everything I know. My father, Rickey Washington.”

Now with eight people on stage, Rickey lifts up a flute and the band launches into Askim, a honey-soaked ode to an ex-Turkish lover also featured on The Epic.

Washington hails from Los Angeles, a city he describes in a musical break as “incredibly diverse, where people come from all over the world”. He grew up in the working-class suburb of Inglewood and still lives in the same house he did as a boy, where he would practise for up to 12 hours a day like his hero John Coltrane, sometimes spending hours on just a single scale. Now he works on his compositions in the garage, where he has built a makeshift recording studio littered with instruments and inspirational posters.

Playing songs from The Epic, an album Washington has described in interviews as having its origin in a series of interrelated dreams about a guard and a young warrior, he draws on a specific musical legacy.

Often compared to the celebrity of Wynton Marsalis, who arrived on the New York scene in the 1980s to reinvigorate blues and swing, Washington draws instead on the so-called “spiritual” jazz of the 1970s, when musicians such as Philip Cohran, Sonny Sharrock, Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane were melding free jazz patterns with disco grooves and pop melodies. On stage, under the ornate hands of the pianist and clavinet player Cameron Graves, there is also something of Sly and the Family Stone, and in a crowd-pleasing interlude, a sampling of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean.

Jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington showcases his ability to move between musical styles at his Tuesday night performance at the Sydney Opera House. Photograph: Daniel Boud


In recent years Washington has worked with a diverse range of artists including Snoop Dogg, Lauryn Hill and Chaka Khan. But it is perhaps his collaboration with Kendrick Lamar on the coming-of-age concept album To Pimp a Butterfly, for which he played saxophone and wrote the string arrangements, that has made obvious his ability to move effortlessly between musical styles.

This includes gospel and soul, sounds that emerge powerfully during the song Black Man, where singer Patrice Quinn strides to the foot of the stage dressed in a shiny silver suit to deliver a monologue: “When he speaks all else is silenced. He is a natural-born leader.

How does he see himself, the Black Man? The embodiment of intelligence, he carries authority. Some will seek to enjoy his grace, and others will seek to destroy his noble place in our world.”

As the rhythm section ascends, Quinn breaks into a sonorous wail somewhere between Yoko Ono and Diana Ross, while the lyrics again conjure the historical figure and plight of the African American male. “Never was a man who was half as brave, as that Black Man. And his love, like the sun, seeks somewhere to begin.”

The lyrics nostalgically evoke the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 70s, which advocated for racial pride, self-sufficiency and equality for all those of African descent, but also strike a contemporary note in referring to the rebellious voice of Black Lives Matter, a comparison that Washington has not shied away from. In an interview with Adam Shatz in 2016, he said that he epitomises the movement, embracing a legacy of when “music was a sword of civil rights”.

After a series of extended drum and bass solos, in which Washington and trombonist Ryan Porter stood to the side of the stage muttering amusingly among themselves, the band returned for Truth, a song from 2017’s Harmony of Difference EP. “I wrote this one as a celebration of all us,” declared Washington. “Diversity is not something to be tolerated, but celebrated.”

Moving through five melodies, the band sounded looser than it does on record, Washington playing his tenor slightly more mellow to allow the percussion and vocals to breathe. I had the sense of listening to a whispered conversation, one where something sad was being said, perhaps the condolences over the passing of a loved one, and as Washington raised his fist to signal the song’s end I heard the final notes as a defiant cry, a signal of hope in the age of Trumpism.

Leaving the concert under the sails of the Opera House, I was in somewhat of a fugue state. I guess that’s what happens when you witness a great artist in their prime.

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