by Ayanna Jacobs-El
If you ask a person on the street about jazz, many of them would say jazz is dead, stuck in a time warp, or only old people listen to it. Tenor saxophonist and bandleader Kamasi Washington is currently challenging that notion, and his recent packed show at Boston’s Royale Nightclub is the proof that jazz is alive and well. The audience was made up of 20 and 30 somethings who all seemed extremely eager to see Washington and his band perform this so-called “dead” jazz music.
Washington rose to prominence following the release of his 4th LP, The Epic, in 2015 on Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder Label. The Epic featured 172 minutes of music that blended hip-hop, classical and R&B with jazz. In addition to his accomplishments as a bandleader he has a running list of high profile collaborations with artists such as Kendrick Lamar, John Legend, Run the Jewels, and Ibeyi.
Washington and his band, called The Next Step, started out their set with his tune “Change of the Guard” from The Epic. This song had a very high level of intensity and allowed Washington to show off his jazz chops during the solo section. His robust and focused tone shined throughout his improvisation, and his musical ideas were captivating and seemed to resonate with the audience.
The second song of the night was a tune that Washington wrote when he was young and it was based out of his love for Charlie Brown cartoons. He said that he always liked the Charlie Brown TV specials, and he always wished that they would do an episode where the characters went to his neighborhood, Inglewood. So in response to this desire, he created a theme song for a hypothetical special episode with his own characters “Leroy and Lanisha” go to Inglewood.
During the second song, Washington invited his father, Rickey Washington, to the stage. I’ve heard from others that have attended past Washington’s shows, that he always brings his father out as a part of the set. His father plays clarinet, soprano saxophone, and flute. For this song, he only performed on the flute. Unfortunately, his father’s improvisational ideas during this solo were not very interesting because he played many repeating figures that didn’t allow his solo to have an emotional development. Overall, I enjoyed the composition and I could hear a distinct hip-hop influence blended with the more traditional jazz idiom.
My favorite song of the night happened to be from Washington’s keyboardist Brandon “Hot Sauce” Coleman. His technique and solo ideas were mind-blowing and his song was beautifully crafted, melodically and harmonically interesting, and funky. Midway through the song, Coleman stunned the audience by bringing out his vocoder to sing the melody of his tune, all while continuing to play the elaborate, tension-filled chord progression.
Something that stood out to me about Washington’s band was that it was comprised of primarily younger musicians. The youngest was a 19-year old pianist who was holding his own and killing it with the older cats. Washington wasn’t afraid of sharing personal anecdotes throughout the night about his life and the musicians in the band. His trombonist and his two drummers were all childhood friends of his. The one female in the band was his vocalist who didn’t hold a major position throughout many of the songs. In the songs where she did sing, I was disappointed by her lackluster voice and over exaggerated body movements and facial expressions. I felt that she was trying to make up for her small position in the band by behaving in an overzealous manner that was more annoying and distracting than entertaining.
While there were parts of Kamasi Washington’s show that could have been executed better, I am glad that he is creating a resurgence in jazz’s popularity among a younger audience. He is a talented saxophonist who I believe will continue to grow in prominence and notoriety for many years to come.
DID YOU SEE KAMASI WASHINGTON’S SHOW AT THE ROYALE? LET US KNOW YOUR THOUGHTS IN THE COMMENTS!