Kitty Empire reviews Kamasi Washington at the Roundhouse in London
The LA jazz man and Kendrick collaborator is all about peace and love, – but he still knows how to get physical
Kamasi Washington Camden Roundhouse
Is spiritual jazz pop music? It is now. One of the most intriguing consequences of the civic shocks and political divisions of the past few years has been a widespread hunger for more meaningful cultural output, and an enthusiastic uptake of sounds rising to the occasion.
Even five years ago, the idea that a tenor saxophonist clad in a dashiki – the roomy tunic favoured by some west African men, and LA jazz man-mountain Kamasi Washington – might find his dense, maximalist triple albums high up in the pop year-end lists would have given observers pause. And yet, in 2015, it happened with Washington’s muchfeted solo debut, The Epic.
Although technically inspired by a dream of Washington’s, the title of the first track from that record, Change of the Guard, declared the new consciousness being ushered in, one that wed vintage Afrofuturism and a commitment to transcendence with a fresh urgency in what many were calling a new civil rights era. Tonight, there are shouts of recognition when Washington and his band load up: a military rat-tat-tat from the two drummers, a flurry of electric piano, some high-speed upright bass, and nought-to-sixty breathwork from Kamasi and the more languid Ryan Porter on trombone.
No one is playing themselves in: this band of long-time associates (many of them childhood friends; and, later, Washington’s father, Rickey Washington) just flick a switch. Endowed with the lungpower of a cetacean, Washington can clearly dragoon his alveoli at will; the sax looks vulnerable in his hands. Silver-booted vocalist Patrice Quinn is tucked behind a plastic sound barrier as much for her own safety as to better hear herself. From this sci-fi pod, she invokes the universe with her hands and intones heroic snatches of the bigger chorales that fill this track in its recorded version. The Roundhouse is putty in Washington’s mitts.
Last month, Washington wowed Coachella, the California pop festival. Next month, he releases a mere double album, one side entitled Earth (dealing with lived reality) and the other, Heaven (creating one’s own reality). Tonight, Washington plays three tracks from it: two teased online, and one – The Psalmnist – a live debut, a restless workout that nods to the 70s.
One of the reasons Washington has resonated so loudly outside jazz is due to his fine missionary work on rapper Kendrick Lamar’s jazzinflected 2015 hip-hop album, To Pimp a Butterfly (he also contributed to 2017’s Pulitzer-winning Damn); another is that Washington is such a welcoming musician. While rigorous, his atmospheres are inclusive, not elitist; you get the feeling this band leader is more of a shepherd, not an ego with airbags.
There’s a willingness, too, to draw on non-jazz forms, like the 70s fusions and 80s funk that unfurl,
Washington is such a welcoming musician; his atmospheres are inclusive, not elitist
just a little too often, from keyboard player Brandon Coleman (“the only person I know who is more into space than I am,” says Washington), or the Latin rhythms that punctuate certain passages.
Bits of Heaven and Earth are, however, among Washington’s most outward-facing works yet. Most rallying of all is Fists of Fury, which covers the theme to Bruce Lee’s 1972 movie of that name. (“I know it doesn’t look like it,” notes Washington, with just-so comic timing, “but I like kung fu.”) Until now, Washington’s music has provided uplift and forbearance. But he’s had enough. Coleman loops Washington’s opening stabs of sax and unleashes some blaxsploitation-era cinematic piano, and Quinn lets 2018 have it. “When I’m faced with unjust injury/Then I change my hands/To fists of fury,” she seethes. The track mounts, with the horn players eventually giving way to the percussionists trading phrases so physical that drummer Tony Austin’s shades fly off. Washington has spoken of how Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring has inspired him; this is a track that also deserves a riot. It doesn’t quite get one in here in Camden.
As rousing as Fists of Fury is, the heart of tonight’s performance sits in a more philosophical place – the final track from last year’s splendid EP, Harmony of Difference, in which Washington played with variations on motifs, uniting them all on Truth.
This rendition benefits from one more horn: the sax of Shabaka Hutchings, leading light of the recent upswell in British jazz. The four players come together, fall apart, Washington’s more lyrical playing contrasting with Hutchings’s emphatic tone; the theme passed from horns to keyboards and back again, after the rhythm section detour to Africa. This is generous, collaborative musicianship, on a track that emphasises how difference should be celebrated, not tolerated; peak Kamasi is achieved.
‘The sax looks vulnerable in his hands’: Kamasi Washington in Camden. Photograph by Richard Saker/The Observer