2024, Music

Kamasi Washington at HISTORY Tuesday May 7, 2024

If I knew who saxophonist Kamasi Washington was before last night, I didn’t have a very good idea. I might have heard his name here and there but I absolutely did not know much at all about him and had to ask someone who he was. The show changed that. I will absolutely be seeking out his music.


The open was Shebad. The very first song made me say to myself “Holy ’70s jazz fusion, Batman” as it was pretty close to the sound of, like, Return to Forever, only filtered through the lens of Gen Z.

The band was a cool: a (very busy) bassist, a drummer, a lead singer who also played guitar, a keyboardist who also played sax and a violinist who also played Trumpet. So lots of talent.

Their music was a slightly weird mix of vaguely jazzy singer-songwriter stuff (think 21st century Joni Mitchell without the weird tuning and arty backing vocals and with electric violin) with stuff much closer to ’70s jazz fusion and jazz funk, sometimes in the same song. I much preferred the uptempo stuff to the ballady stuff but even at their most uptempo they could have used either some polish (and a better mix) or more ragged edges, it often felt like they were stuck between the two. As for the mix, the lead vocals and keyboard were quite loud, the drums were fine, but some of the other instruments could be hard to hear. That could have been where I was in the audience too.

Kamasi Washington

Washington is most famous for appearing on To Pimp a Butterfly, a Kendrick Lamar album I have never heard. I guess this is how jazz musicians get big audiences now because the place was pretty full.

The band featured Washington on tenor and a small keyboard, his father Mickey on soprano and flute, a trombone player, a vocalist, a keyboardist with many keyboards, a drummer, a stand-up bassist and a DJ who also played percussion and some electronic devices. (Apparently a pretty famous DJ.) Washington himself was pretty gregarious and seemed quite comfortable leading a reasonably large ensemble like this.

When the first song started, I got serious Sun Ra vibes, even if I haven’t listened to enough Sun Ra to get proper Sun Ra vibes. But that was basically the only moment where I thought it was going to get woo. The music was a mixture of fusiony soul jazz with post bop soloing with a little bit of jazz funk thrown in, with one major exception. They played tracks from his new album plus a Zappa cover (I don’t know them) and a (very) brief Coltrane quote. It verged from hot to cool but even the cool parts usually had pretty great soloing.

About the soloing: every musician was excellent and all but the vocalist had at least one featured solo. (Actually, only the drummer didn’t get two, and that works for me because drum solos are lame.) For their first solo every single member of the band started out hesitantly, which must have been a choice. It was weird and through me for a loop until I got used to it. They were all excellent players and Kamasi in particular pretty much did everything you expect a saxophonist to do who doesn’t play free. Kamasi also has a more soul- and funk-influenced style than most of the saxophonists I listen to, which was cool. I also appreciated getting two trombone solos. Kamasi’s father is certainly getting older and it seemed at times that he was slightly lost, however he played multiple solos on flute so maybe that was just his manner. The way he looked certainly didn’t affect how the whole thing sounded.

The one exception to this sort of 21st century soul jazz fusion thing was the hip hop track that the DJ played in the middle of the set. Kamasi said he didn’t normally do this thing that was about to happen, and then nearly everyone departed the stage and the DJ played a recording of a song from Kamasi’s album that features George Clinton and a rapper I never heard of. It was weird to me but got among the best reaction of anything of the evening which…I don’t even know what to say about that. (It’s live music, folks. Why do you want to listen to recording? Wow, I’m old.)

The crowd was really into it though and I can’t help but think about all the other jazz musicians out there who don’t get crowds like this. I haven’t been to an absolute ton of jazz shows but I’ve been to a few and this was far and away the largest and most boisterous audience I’ve ever seen. I’m sure Herbie Hancock gets larger audiences when he comes but he’s 84. Sure, not all jazz is as danceable as this – maybe most jazz – but it strikes me as really unfortunate that the only younger jazz musicians (Kamasi is my age) can get this kind of attention is to be featured on an album by a big rapper. If you like Kamasi’s music, if you liked this show, there is an absolute ton of music out there like this being made by people you’ve never heard of, performing in front crowds 1/4 this size. I hope the people who like his stuff go see other jazz shows here in Toronto or elsewhere. (And buy digital copies of their music!)

Anyway, it was a fantastic show. I really enjoyed myself, even if I didn’t know what was happening during the interlude. The best concert I’ve been to in the last year and certainly one of the best I’ve been to in a long time.

Check him out!

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