It’s over two years now since Inglewood native Kamasi Washington soundly and confidently delivered on the titled mandate of his debut record (and instant classic) The Epic. A three-hour behemoth of raucous, deft and daring jazz which took the world by storm and for a long time was all anyone could talk about. So it’s no surprise that tonight in the formal setting of the NCH that there’s an edge of excitement in the air. Not only that but the crowd is decidedly mixed; young and old, rolled up beanies and distinguished greys, distressed denim and well-pressed chinos.
Kamasi’s sound, in many ways uncompromising, seems to have reached a wide demographic because of its wider impulses, its indulgences, it’s tipping against windmills rather than in spite of them. So when the man comes on and offers to “Take you on a journey,” all you can do is strap in. But the wheels almost come off at the first turn. A few bars into flagship track ‘Changing of the Guard’ and it’s clear that something is amiss. The stage hands slip across the stage trying to be unobtrusive and the sound is awful, like the group of master musicians are playing in a mausoleum with the sound stage of a well. Fortunately the majority of the issues are solved quickly and the group are free to fall into a groove of frantic machine gun like swells. It’s a tactic that the group utilise throughout the set; they don’t play music that fills the room but put push it out further and further until they finally stop you’re worried the walls might cave in without the sound to support them. Such is the case across ‘Rerun’, a slow jam as far as the Washington crew go, but Kamasi takes the opportunity to blow out the first of his mega mind blowing solos. The saxophone soars and sounds the way it sounds on film soundtracks when it’s the voice for an entire city, an entire culture. If the entire set carried on like that it would be more than enough but the next track is a family affair, ‘Henrietta Our Hero’ is an open heart letter to Kamasi’s grandmother and it’s also the perfect time to bring his father Rikey Washington out on clarinet and alto-sax.
At sixty-four he’s a legend in his own right but only the oldest legend on a stage of them. We’ve already been introduced to Ryan Porter on trombone who can switch it up from sonorous melodies to wild solos without breaking a sweat and Patrice Quinn whose vocals work just as well taking the lead as pulling out Donald Byrd style vocal chants. But now it’s time to meet Brandon Coleman whose outrageous work on the keys and synths has given the set a tinge of madness from the get-go. The group rips through his funky composition ‘Giant Feelings’ which feels like a Frankenstein creation of groove, early hip hop and 80’s studio jazz. As if the brain couldn’t take any more pummelling this is followed by a drum off, or what Kamasi calls ‘a conversation’, as the two drummers go beat for beat in a jaw-dropping show of ability.
There’s something all-consuming but hard to put your finger on with Washington, something massive. It could be the musician’s stature which is certainly imposing, or the incredible talent of his troupe, or just the sheer bigness of his sound. Whatever is it seems to draw everything into itself like a black hole. So the next two tracks ‘Leroy and Lanisha’ and ‘The Magnificent 7’ disappear in a blur of talent, dreamscapes and something earthy and fundamental. The group finish to a standing ovation and maybe that’s why they deign to come back despite the curfew. The ruse is that they’ll play another song ‘The Rhythm changes’ and ostensibly it is a song in that it has a melody and some verses but in reality it’s Kamasi bending the notes out of his saxophone into something otherworldly, something too exciting to put into words. Eoghain Meakin