REVIEW: Kamasi Washington at the 2018 Cheltenham Jazz Festival

Kamasi Washington at Cheltenham
Photo credit: © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

Kamasi Washington
(Big Top, 6 May 2018, Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Review by Peter Jones)

"The biggest name in jazz" is a hell of a billing to live up to, but that’s how the compère introduced saxophone colossus Kamasi Washington’s Cheltenham debut under a sweltering Big Top, late on Sunday afternoon. By the end of the gig we knew exactly how he has earned that accolade.

His eight-piece ensemble makes a joyous, assertive noise, with that wonderful huge, rackety, slightly ragged sound perfected by Mingus and Sun Ra. LA-based Washington is big in every sense of the word: not only was his first album a three-disc blockbuster called The Epic, but his band makes a monumental sound, and his own physical presence dwarfs even hefty characters like keyboardist Bandon Coleman. The Cheltenham lineup also featured the leader’s father Rickey Washington on flute and soprano saxophone, Ryan Porter on trombone, Patrice Quinn on vocals, Miles Mosley on double bass, and two drummers – Tony Austin (stage left) and Robert Miller (stage right).

From the start, they produced music on a massive, take-no-prisoners scale: after an intro and a squalling cadenza, Coleman began the main assault from behind his towering castle keep of keyboards. It was fast, furious and full-on, Kamasi taking the next solo himself, then Miller. The tune was from the forthcoming Heaven and Earth album (amazingly only Washington’s second), and it was quickly followed by Fist of Fury, the theme tune from Bruce Lee’s 1973 martial arts epic.

For those who had never seen Kamasi Washington before, it was at this point that the whole project came into focus. The music and culture of the 1970s have had a profound effect on Washington’s entire approach to music, which has been described – amongst its other qualities – as filmic. In the UK the '70s was the era of kung-fu on the big screen, but in the US it was also the time of blaxploitation – black action movies with a theme of black power. Quinn made its modern relevance explicit: "Our time as victims is over. We will not ask for justice. Instead we will take our retribution," she intoned repeatedly. There followed a lengthy flute excursion by Rickey Washington.

"No one else plays the bass like Miles Mosley," Kamasi had informed us at the start, and now we understood what he meant, as Mosley attacked his instrument, sawing furiously at it with the bow, effects units making it scream and howl like tortured heavy metal.

There was now some respite, as the bandleader introduced the next tune by explaining how he spent most of his childhood in a dreamworld of his own. In illustration, The Space Traveller’s Lullaby, in a swingy 6/8, was the perfect foil to what we’d heard up to now, sounding rather like the theme to the Star Trek TV series. Quinn joined the front-line players in stating the song’s unearthly melody, with a solo from Porter’s trombone and another sweet outing from Coleman.

Truth consisted of five different melodies played at once, an idea inspired by Washington’s celebration of human and cultural diversity. A gorgeous vocoder-like theme on the keys (think Herbie Hancock’s I Thought It Was You), was taken up afterwards by Quinn, who when not singing kept up a lithe, sinuous dance routine at the edge of the stage throughout. The roaring standing ovation at the end was the only possible reaction to an unforgettable gig.

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