On a rainy, windy Wednesday night, I had the ideal commute to a jazz show; it was right around the corner from my retail job. I think if Kamasi Washington was playing somewhere that involved a hike, I might have skipped it, but it was so close I left my bag and work and probably could have left my coat too. I was eager to hear Washington in concert because unlike gazillions of others I wasn’t sold on his 2015 recording, “The Epic” (Brainfeeder). I liked it, but amid dozens of people touting him as the future of jazz, my reflexive skepticism combined with a proprietary sense for the musical era that he mines, the early and mid ‘70s jazz and funk overlap. Everyone has a reference; I’ve heard him compared to Pharoah, Shepp, and Billy Harper; for me it’s the Midnight Band without the visionary poet out front. And since I remain convinced that the Bandwagon is the future of jazz, I’m pointed skeptical of any other bandwagons.
Wednesday night brought me around somewhat. Kamasi persuaded me that his passion is an artist’s passion, not a revivalist’s one. His band is a solid ensemble with an unusual instrumentation, two drummers, an acoustic bass, electric keyboards, trombone and vocals with guest spots for trumpet, soprano saxophone and flute (the last two played by Kamasi’s father, Ricky Washington). Amid all this the leader plays fervent tenor saxophone that is mostly straight out of the John Coltrane clarion call to enliven the spirit school, but as his show wore on, Kamasi coyly slipped in other quotes hinting at more. I heard Ornette’s “Lonely Woman” and Sonny Rollins’s “Don’t Stop the Carnival.” Friends also heard things like the “Ghostbusters” theme song. It was almost as rewarding to watch the Kamasi phenomenon in action as it was to enjoy the music. Webster Hall was sold out and the audience skewed young, mostly late 20s. After the show I opined to a friend in that demographic that if hip hop kids liked jam bands, then Kamasi would be their Phish. My pal told me he grew up loving both genres and that Kamasi was much better than that.
Washington said that this was the band’s first gig all year (he’s been on the disabled list with a broken foot), and that was my most substantive complaint. The band was a tad rusty, cues were missed several times. It made me wish that the band could get a tour where they play venues half the size of Webster for three night stands. It would help them gel; there’s a lot of talent and yeah, an original voice too. Even in the rain and wind, I’d endure a hike to hear that.