Kamasi Washington brough Jazz-cool to the Forum
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Kamasi Washington brough Jazz-cool to the Forum

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First thing to note, is that the man is well-versed in the dark-art of tenor-saxophone – ready to explode into an ecstasy of notes at the drop of a chord-change. He’s a grand composer, effortlessly in command, guiding his virtuoso crew toward harmony after harmony. He’s cool, laid back and even funny, comfortably rising laughs from the audience in the moments between songs.

You might have even caught the murmurs a while back and half-remember the name from his collaboration with Kendrick Lamar on the Avant-hop effort, To Pimp A Butterfly. Here though, the sketches are pure jazz. They traverse deep out into the cosmos and stretch the sonic landscape to the brink. At times, the listen is pure challenge, leaving all familiar tropes of melody behind and pushing you to hang on, as each bar rings an octave higher, and the notes fly between jarring and sublime. It’s tempting at points to give in to a feeling of being musically lost. But the trick is to hang on, listen deliberately, and have the utmost faith in the chief.

“Melbourne,” Washington says as he first entered the stage. “Are you ready to go on a journey?” It’s a dare, but one the audience was all too willing to accept, and they duly did, with enthusiastic cheers. “Well alright then, let’s blast off…”

Out comes ‘Change of the Guard’, a long-form cut that’s as majestic as a golden-age Hollywood film score – it’s an audacious nod to the jazz greats of old.  It’s an expansive arrangement with plenty of space to let others solo, letting their flourishes individually resonate within the tapestry of the overall piece. Washington is all too happy to sit back and enjoy the moments when they do. Though when it comes back for him to put mouth to brass, he leaves all in awe. He reaches deep, laying his soul bare across the stage, with a visceral soar of notes achingly reminiscent of John Coltrane.

Later on, Washington invites his father, Ricky onstage, to add his flute and clarinet to the rest of the set, “The man who taught me everything I know,” he says. Indeed, the man’s no joke. He lets a flurry of notes loose on the flute with a frightening amount of ease. A particularly beautiful moment is had between the two when they play ‘Henrietta Our Hero,’ an ode to Washington’s paternal grandmother. Here was a song about an extraordinarily strong woman in these men’s lives, and in front of the crowd, they explore their love for her musically. They play different melodies, but harmonise with each other throughout, as if the thought of her could produce nothing except a resolute musical whole.  

The dense themes resume when Washington lays out the philosophy of his most recent album Harmony of Difference. Chiefly he says, it’s an exploration of how forces seemingly working in opposition, can come together and harmonise, to a beautifully complex, composite whole. A point he aptly notes, as a reason for hope, in these politically turbulent times. ‘Truth’, illustrates this concord of differences. Each band member plays different melodies in the context of the whole, without ever losing sight of the songs overall thread. 

To end things, we had ‘The Rhythm Changes’. A Latin-drenched soul number that saw Washington summon old friend and collaborator Thundercat to man the electric bass. What we were treated to was at least a 30-minute effort, a jazz-odyssey, through the history of music, space and time. They reached higher and higher with each passing minute, with break-neck solos from Thundercat, who’s fingers seem to fly across the bass and eat it up, and Washington who kept finding new registers and notes to explore throughout the ride.

And then that was that, we rode that raucous crescendo of melody and brass and hit the starry lit roof of the Forum like cosmic jazz-adventurers. By the time we hit the ground and back to Earth, the lights came on, and it was time to pour out onto the street.

Highlight: Kamasi ripping all over the saxophone.

Lowlight: The crowd was plenty, but perhaps not enough to be fitting for a musical talent like this.

Crowd Favourite: Thundercat eating up the bass with his fingers while jumping on stage – the man can rip.