Kamasi Washington

The Metro Theatre, March 23


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Kamasi Washington. Photo supplied.

This may also work for the countless orchestras living in fear of their audiences dwindling to nothing: turn up the volume. Los Angeles tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington plays a conventional enough brand of jazz, if deep-fried in funk, but by presenting it at full-blast rock-band volume it can generate general hysteria and ecstasy.

The fervent reaction may also reflect audience members at least partly turned on to Washington by his association with hip-hop artists like Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar, so they hear his music as a new-minted revelation, rather than an offshoot of all that has gone before. This impression could be bolstered by his tribal-chieftain robes, his cheeky stretching of the truth to call his band the Next Step and by the ambitious scale of his most recent album, The Epic, a 174-minute composition with a choir and strings augmenting a larger version of his band.

Despite only having a septet in action here some qualities shone through that do set Washington apart, such as one rare in jazz: grandeur. It was there in the sweep of some melodies, compounded by the sheer sonic density, thanks to the twin-drummer attack of Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner. Both are accomplished, exciting and individualistic practitioners, who enjoyed a thunderous night-long dialogue.

Washington, himself, is fine saxophonist if not a great one, who was largely bullied into building solos from stabbing riffs, and any beauty to his sound was sadly lost through the harsh over-amplification. We had to wait until the end of The Rhythm Changes to hear his most affecting playing, when the only accompaniment was Brandon Coleman’s keyboard whispers.

Coleman excelled at underpinning the funk with jabbing clavinet, while trombonist Ryan Porter, singer Patrice Quinn and double-bassist Miles Mosley completed the band, although the latter pair were too often swamped in the maelstrom. Nonetheless anyone who pulls a new audience along to hear improvised music is potentially doing countless other artists a huge favour.