words & photography | MATT STEFFEN

Kamasi Washington returned to Cincinnati in November to fill the Taft Theatre with his translation of what appears to be a waning musical genre. In a time in this country when jazz is consumed at the same rate as children’s music, a new take may be just what we need.

Kamasi Washington’s soulful sound is built out by a young collective of players loosely known as The West Coast Get Down. They’re just as comfortable in the worlds of hip hop and R&B as they are with America’s only true original art form. They play Moog keytars with vocoded harmonies and run trombones through a rig usually reserved for Tom Morello. You will find them backing a broad spectrum of sounds—Kendrick Lamar, Suicidal Tendencies, Lauren Hill, Flying Lotus, and the late Chris Cornell. When they come together behind Kamasi Washington, their sum is undoubtedly rooted in rhythm.

A quick glance at the stage indicates that the beat will be a prominent feature. The rhythm section consists of a central bass—both electric and upright—and two drum kits. To the left is what one might expect from a jazz kit, scaled back traps with hi-hat and sizzlers. To the right, a drum set that would look more at home with Neil Peart sitting behind it. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is for show. Kamasi’s long-time friend and collaborator, Ronald Bruner, Jr., will plug every piece into the mix before this show ends. He adds a super-quick, technical scatter to the more laid-back beats of Tony Austin.

On the keys, Brandon Coleman appears to be operating on another level. Each limb sets about its task independently, a possessed marionette with left hand on a Hammond, right hand Nord Lead, singing harmony, all while tap dancing on enough stomp boxes to make Vernon Reid proud.

Flanked by Ryan Porter on trombone and his dad, Rickey, on alto sax and flute, Kamasi stands center stage. He is a mountain of a man draped in a colorful tunic, and he leaves no finger bare of adornment. He stares intently out over the crowd and rips through the mix with his powerful tenor sax, retelling endearing and comical stories from their collective history.

The last time Kamasi and all were in town was for an abbreviated set at the 2016 Midpoint Music Festival. While it may be no problem for Bob Mould to rip through a string of three-minute melodies, the 45-minute set limit saw Kamasi struggling to squeeze in a trio of tunes. At the Taft, they had a little more room to feel things out and move at their own pace while running through a sweeping mix of tracks from his new EP Harmony of Difference, a few from last year’s colossal The Epic, and a couple yet to be recorded. They ended the set with “The Rhythm Changes,” a song celebrating the fleeting and the temporal. This song has been in my head since they performed it at Midpoint. With the absence of vocalist Patrice Quinn, Coleman seemingly sprouted extra appendages and covered the vocals, digitally shifting them up an octave or so to mimic a more feminine register, all without dropping the usual underlying keys. Let there be no question of the level of talent filling this stage.

Kamasi’s style is genre straddling—a melting pot of 1940’s Harlem, 1970’s funk, 1980’s R&B, with a healthy dose of modern technical playfulness. It’s a mythos that transcends his music and embodies his larger directive. Before getting into the layers of “Truth” from his new EP, Harmony of Difference, he shouts out, “Diversity is not to be tolerated, it’s to be celebrated.” A wonderful message for our seemingly reemergent myopic inclinations.

Truth” is a song that structurally lives as it preaches. It is composed of five separate melodies living in the same expanse, meandering through a space together. They bump up against each other and find themselves in lockstep at times. They come in, they drop out. They crescendo and then fall back to a single voice, then a whisper, only to build back up, note by note. It’s a beautiful metaphor on a technical and melodic level.

There seems to be a lot of pressure thrown at Kamasi Washington with talk of the colossus that will save a dying art. If his music is any indicator, I don’t believe he’s seeing it that way. With all that he is putting out there, it seems that he may have a loftier destination in mind.

 


Kamasi Washington performed at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati on November 28, 2017.