It was a world-class set from a world-class act.
“My name is Kamasi Washington and we’re the next step,” announced the man we were gathered to see. A declaration, true, but one presented simply as the way it is, with the screeches of James Brown’s ‘Get Up Offa That Thing’ still fading from the concert hall’s PA.
See, it’s not just the commanding stature, nor is it the kaftan, beads or afro – though you can sort of see it in his eyes. It’s not the way he plays or even the music itself, really. There’s something about Washington that seems like he was transported from someplace else.
Like he’s already been kicking it with Sun Ra in space or George Clinton on the Mothership and these experiences have just humbled and driven him to communicate something close to a spiritual feeling by laying down grooves with some of his oldest pals. Like he was delivered here intact, ready to impart feeling.
Which isn’t to say that the message was easy to take. Once it came, it came in all languages at once, a barrage of rhythms, tones, howling winds and falling trees.
Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr. atop drum kits on either side of the stage, thrashing wildly like the limbs of an ancient sea creature protruding from the deep, neither in agreement nor combat.
Between the dual skinsmen stood Miles Mosley, cool as anything, his rhythms nimble and intricate; the giant scratchplate adorning his upright bass mirrored by the metal sleeve on his right arm. Working the wah pedal, Mosley kicked into a funk solo, his fingers dancing across four thick strings.
Shifting moods, the near cacophony of ‘Street Fighter Mas’ gave way to the, at least initially, smooth ‘Journey’, all sustained piano and long sax notes wrapped in a delay effect.
Brandon Coleman pulled out the first of many jaw-dropping solos that he would deliver. If his hands could have been seen behind the layers of keyboards, they would have been a cartoon blur; a whir of activity with a confused roadrunner’s face sticking out.
While his right hand worked a series of lighting quick climaxes, his left introduced surging, dramatic rhythmic stabs, almost as if he was trying to throw his bandmates off. Mosley just grinned.
Stepping up, Washington began a solo that seemed to come straight from his soul. The group dropped out until it was just Austin and Washington — and eventually, even the drummer relinquished the stage to the power of their leader’s saxophone. A truly beautiful thing: rich in overtones, not overly pure, but weighted with feeling.
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Ryan Porter’s trombone on its own would’ve been enough, but when playing in unison with Washington, as well as soprano saxophonist Rickey Washington — yep that would be Mr Washington Snr. — the combined horns complemented each other without blending into an indistinguishable whole.
This was especially true during ‘Truth’ from 2017’s Harmony of Difference, the only Washington-penned number performed not from his most recent album, last year’s Heaven and Earth. Featuring multiple overlapping melodies as a metaphor for celebrating the differences between peoples, the result was a mesmerising balancing act of arrangement and performance over a slinking groove.
After filling the space with as much melody as it could contain, the band ceded the stage to the two drummers, who performed a series of non-competitive battles. It was an almost outrageous display of musicianship, particularly from Bruner.
Ending the hour-long, six-song set with the catchy and beat-heavy ‘Fists of Fury’, it was interesting to reflect on how much more refined the group’s sound is now compared to their 2016 show at the Prince Bandroom.
Although the player’s personalities most definitely still shine through, it feels more unified but with less funk. They are, without a doubt, a world-class jazz band, perhaps even a few steps ahead of the next.