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

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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

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