This just in: jazz is still alive! It’s hip, funky, funny, emotional, loud and brave.
This Friday, Kamasi Washington and his backing band The Next Step performed at the historic Michigan Theatre in front of a packed audience. As an avid jazz listener and live music enthusiast of the genre itself, tonight’s performance left me speechless: even watching the confident 35-year-old tenor saxophonist take the stage, priestly in his blue and gold robe, I knew I was in for something special.
A native of Los Angeles, Kamasi Washington was first introduced to music through his father. He formed his first band, The Young Jazz Giants, during high school. Calling Kamasi a “prodigy” does him a disservice: Washington would go on to study ethnomusicology on a full-ride scholarship to UCLA, which exposed him to diverse musical cultures from all over the world. While still in undergrad, he would tour with Snoop Dogg, the great bandleader Gerald Wilson and the R&B legend Raphael Saadiq. Washington went on to perform with many legendary artists, including McCoy Tyner, Quincy Jones, Wayne Shorter and Mos Def. Recently, he has become best known for his contributions to Kendrick Lamar’s critically-acclaimed 2015 album “To Pimp a Butterfly.” That same year, Washington released his debut solo album “The Epic” (Fun fact: the album is a mere 7 minutes short of 3 full hours – epic, indeed). His live performance at this year’s Coachella was considered one of the highlights of the festival.
The performance started off with “Change of the Guard,” the epic opening track of his album. Other hits included tracks like “Henrietta Our Hero,” a soaring ballad written in honor of his grandmother. The performance also included a long “drummer dialogue,” where The Next Step’s two (yes, two) drummers, Tony Austin and Robert Miller, played drum solos simultaneously in a mesmerizing “call and response.” Just imagine the last scene of Whiplash, but better.
Yet none of the above does Kamasi’s sound justice. To describe his music fully, one has to be a master of imagery. Technically, his own special corner of jazz is defined as West Coast Jazz and Bebop. But hearing it live, the music of Kamasi Washington and the Next Step escapes labels. Imagine taking the spirituality of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” adding in Miles Davis’ wild experimentation, then finishing it all off with the addition of chaotically beautiful solos straight from Ornette Coleman’s “The Shape of Jazz to Come.”
Even then, you’ve only gotten closer to Washington’s unique style. To quote the man himself: “I learned the things I use in jazz from hip-hop,” which probably explains the hip-hop beats, swinging polyrhythms, synthesizer solos, and basslines that are every bit as much Dr Dre as Jaco Pastorius. To make a long story short: call it “Free West Coast Hip-Hop Bebop Cool Jazz.”
Or rather, just call it an experience. Played live, the swinging groove made the audience tap their feet, bop their heads and even dance between the aisles. To quote the awed whisper I heard during one of Kamasi’s solo: “Dancing to his music is the natural thing to do. Standing still is unnatural.”
The vocalist, Patrice Quinn, sang on several songs with her elegant and soft voice, whereas on the remaining songs she would turn into a 1-woman choir, using her voice in parallel with the keyboard. The keyboardist, Brandon Coleman, would often join Quinn with a vocoder, simultaneously using a keytar to hammer out some of the most memorable solos I’ve ever heard. Miles Mosley, the bassist, picked, popped, and slapped the strings of his electric double, pairing raw instrumental skill with a wide range of effects to sing out fluid and groovy basslines. Also of note was the band’s trombonist, the incredibly talented Ryan Porter, whose solos brought the genre of jazz of new heights – and more importantly, the audience to their feet.
As a special treat, Kamasi’s father, Rickey Washington, joined him on-stage after the 2nd song with his flute and soprano saxophone, which brought the “coolness” of the early 60’s costal scenes roaring back to life. Full band now assembled, the younger Washington would talk about the story behind each song before launching into another epic 10-minute session, pausing only to spin yarns about how he met each of his bandmates. Even robed and regal, it was his wit and poise that truly commanded the stage.
Overall, the concert was an extraordinary experience. Simply put: if you have ears, listen to Kamasi Washington. Better yet, do it live. After seeing this show, I can sleep soundly knowing that jazz is headed to new directions with a confident and skilled captain at the helm.
Kamasi Washington and the Next Step performed live at the Michigan Theater on Friday, September 30. Listen to the group’s debut album “The Epic” on Spotify now.