Thursday, May 12, 2016

Kamsai Washington brings his message to Atlanta's Variety Playhouse



Kamsai Washington The Epic

On Wednesday May 5, 2016 the tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington brought his band to Atlanta's Variety Playhouse for a one-night performance that was highly anticipated. The show featured some of the music from his recently released three-disc album The Epic, which has almost uniformly garnered praise from the critics. The album, a studio album that utilized full string orchestration and a choir to achieve Washington’s grand musical vision, was released digitally and on vinyl on May 5, 2015. It is quite an impressive endeavor for both its scope and execution.

On this night Washington brought his core group of musicians, The Next Step, to the Variety stage. Beside himself on tenor, the band includes vocalist Patrice Quinn, upright bassist Miles Mosely, trombonist Ryan Porter, pianist Cameron Graves, drummer Tony Austin and a second drummer Robert Miller. Washington’s introduced his father the multi-reedist Rickie Washington, midway through show.

 
Kamsai and his Next Step Band at the Variety Playhouse
The Variety was filled to near capacity when the show started at about 9 pm, with many patrons choosing to stand up close to the stage to get a better glimpse of the band. In some sense the music demands a communal, participatory experience.   

Much has been written about this young man. Some say his breakthrough music- a mix of soul, gospel, funk and spiritual jazz that has caught the attention of a new, younger audience that normally eschews instrumental, improvisational music- points the way toward the future of jazz. That's a tall order and remains to be seen, but I suspect the thirty-five-year-old Washington would eschew such attempts at labeling. He and his core band members all hail from the South Los Angeles area and have been playing together since their teens. Washington’s tenor was an an important voice on the landmark hip hop album, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and he has played with Chaka Khan and studied with composer Gerald Wilson. A child of the hip-hop generation, it was an Art Blakey album that turned the young saxophonist at age eleven, onto jazz music and its multi-faceted aspects that he embraces today.

Washington is a large man with a round, tranquil face that is circumnavigated by his wild, teased out Afro and a bushy full beard. He wears a colorful, full length Dashiki gown that gives him the appearance of floating when he walks. The total look is shamanistic, one of a prophet or spiritual medicine man, and so when he plays there is some unspoken expectation of being present for the deliverance of a message. If that is true, I suspect the message is -move over we have heard you and now this is our time.

Washington’s plays with a powerful intensity that is clearly derivative of John Coltrane’s more searching later period, but with strong ties to the unbridled funk of Maceo Parker.

On this evening the music opened with Washington’s powerful, McCoyTyner inspired, “Change of the Guard,” for my money one of the most memorable pieces on his album. There is a sense of majesty about the front line of Washington’s sax, Porter’s trombone and Quinn’s voice all playing the opening line synchronously as the percussive-heavy rhythm section powers it forward. The music bespeaks of the story, a dream Washington had of guards running the gauntlet trying to overcome the old guardsman ( presumably the keeper of the tradition), failing until one who was truly ready finally overthrows the elder. Is Washington that successful guardsman?

The band gets into a heavy, almost dance-able groove that allows for Washington to wail like a man possessed.  And wail he does, he has mastered the art of building tension to a zenith, his tenor screaming in ever escalating crescendos of expression as his frenetic band drives the rhythmic message home like a runaway pile driver. But where Coltrane's sound was searching Washington's sound is more declarative. Graves piano style is both heavy and florid, filled with crescendo-heavy runs of notes that span the entire keyboard, occasionally attacking his keys like he is hammering on a set of bells.

Kamsai Washington and Ryan Porter

On the funky, propulsive “Re-Run” Washington opens the piece with an unaccompanied saxophone solo using a fluttering technique before getting into a repeating vamp that could have easily opened a James Brown or Grover Washington Jr. song. In his enthusiasm, Washington accelerated the pace to a level that was unsustainable by the whole band and had throttle it back a bit before the band joined in. It was times like this where the band seemed out of sync. Patrice Quinn whisper-like tones sang indistinguishable lyrics before Ryan Porter’s trombone was featured on another rhythmic romp. 

The third song featured vocalist Quinn, who waived her lithe arms over her head like a woman in a trance, as she sang in ethereal tones on “Henrietta Our Hero.” Quinn's voice being oddly a soft juxtaposition to the rest of the band's unrestrained power. Washington also introduced his father Rickie Washington who played flute and soprano saxophone for the rest of the set. The song is apparently about Washington’s grandmother who was by all accounts a strong woman and the music was equally powerful and full of emotions, best expressed through Washington’s explosive tenor solo.

Between songs Washington explained that when the band went into the studio to record his album The Epic, it was a collaborative effort, where the musicians each brought into the studio as many as forty-five compositions. The plan was for each artist to perform on the other’s music for future release under their own individual names.  One of the products of that session was by the bassist Miles Mosley, “Abraham”, which featured Mosley’s wah-pedaled upright bass and a really funky front line that sounded a bit like it was inspired by a Native American war dance.

Washington then let the two drummers, Tony Austin and Robert Miller have at it in a rhythmic explosion, a shedding competition. The two drummer format has always been difficult to pull off flawlessly and entertainingly.There were times when I felt the band went off the rails a bit. The missing link might have been the Bruner Brothers, not present on this particular evening. Both drummer Ronald and bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner were important parts of the music on the album. Consequently the band seemed to veer off on its own tangent at times.

Does Washington represent the shape of things to come as so many seem to think? The music does have  a relentless drive, making it irresistible to move your feet and shake your body, like the music of James Brown or P funk.  As some have written it clearly hearkens back to the spiritual jazz of the late sixties where people like Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane and Albert Ayler once tried to bring us to the transcendental. It even has some roots in the cosmic sounds of Lonnie Liston Smith and the futuristic explorations of Sun Ra's Arkestra. Certainly, elements of gospel, religious celebratory and revival music are also present. 

What I miss the most from this music is the lack of a retainable melody. For all the passion, soul, funk and spirituality that this music clearly represents it leaves me a little hungry, un-satiated.  With the exception of the “Change of the Guard,” it mostly lacks something lastingly melodic that I can take away with me. Something that I can retain beyond the limits of the immediate listen or the excitement of the visceral performance.


Nevertheless, the audience was enraptured and if the majority of critics are right, and the crowds seem to say they are, Washington has tapped into something, something that transcends what much of music is saying today and revives a sound that we have not heard in a long time in its own unique way.


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