Live Review: Kamasi Washington

24 March 2016 | 6:41 pm | Matt MacMaster

"His entire being is shot through with music, like his body is just an empty bag full of it, and it's trying to escape using any means necessary."

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'Jazz' as spiritual conduit is a concept whose roots run deep in black America. It moved from sonic furniture (via technical experimentation) into something more nebulous and powerful during the civil rights movement.

The best examples are when it becomes unhinged, angry, riotous and colourful. Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Miles Davis are held up as shining lights over the course of its evolution, all three throwing off the shackles of tradition and fearlessly exploring the medium, producing masterworks of untethered sound and fury (Monk's Dream, Love Supreme and Bitches Brew respectively). Kamasi Washington is a part of a new wave of young players tapping into that energy (Thundercat is another, as is Flying Lotus, both on Brainfeeder, the vanguard label of eccentric neo-jazz), and as a bandleader and saxophonist his arrangements and wild gospel themes elevate him to a status shared by these great names.

Washington is a large dude. With a huge afro, big smile, heavy beaded jewellery and afro-print kaftan, he has a subtle magnetism on stage, a figure that says a lot with his appearance and performance. He was softly spoken yet funny, and his voice has an easy, natural flow that matches his playing. His entire being is shot through with music, like his body is just an empty bag full of it, and it's trying to escape using any means necessary. His band filled the Metro stage. Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr. on twin drum kits (the latter being Thundercat's brother), Miles Mosley on bass (doing things on a standup you've never seen: playing it with a wa-wa pedal, with a bow, as a guitar, grinding it like an Ibanez!), Brandon Coleman on keys achieving some truly ingenious textures and shapes, Patrice Quinn on vocals swaying and praying to something higher, and Ryan Porter on trombone, a small, shy looking guy with a lot to say, playing it like a trumpet, playing it with speed, playing it like it had a voice singing about his new daughter. It was a joyful ensemble that truly connected with each other, and that unspoken bond formed over decades of playing together resulted in moments of bliss and transcendence.

If there was anything that holds them back it's the lack of variation on larger forms and themes. It's a small gripe, one overshadowed by their sheer force of will. On stage that issue melts away. They combined theatricality, acrobatics, subtlety, humour and pathos to create a wonderful miasma of sound and light. It was electrifying and joyful, and considering the events of the last week, a timely message that something better is possible.

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