The King of LA Jazz held court Thursday, Dec. 10 at Club Nokia and delivered an epic show for the ages.
Hobbling on crutches, saxophonist extraordinaire Kamasi Washington took center stage and sat on a plush recliner. Looking like jazz royalty in a flowing robe, the regal Washington spun a wild, humorous tale about breaking his ankle by jumping out of an airplane to save a baby and a rabbit.
The truth is more prosaic; Washington had tripped and fallen on a cobblestone street.
For the next three hours, though, he did something more magical than flying through the air like Superman. Even though he rarely stood up, Washington had walked with giants – namely Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and other greats. Throughout, Washington made his tenor sax scream, groove, wail, and purr, often within the same song.
Los Angeles-native Washington celebrated his homecoming at the conclusion of his first headlining world tour by taking his appreciative audience on a tour of American music. Fortified by a 29-member wall of sound that included strings, backup singers, a DJ, two bassists, two keyboardists, a horn section and two drummers, team Kamasi veered from funk to bebop to fushion to soul to rock and back again.
Opener “Change of the Guard,” also the first song on his critically acclaimed three-disc masterpiece, The Epic, featured a funky, P-Funk-like keytar solo from Brandon Coleman, chill-inducing strings and backing vocals, and impassioned soloing from Washington. Breaking into a huge smile at the virtuosity surrounding him, Washington shook and swayed his body to the music. Audience members joined him.
A powerful version of “Re Run” soared with Washington’s tasteful sax accents and reached the stratosphere when renowned electric bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner took the spotlight. Thundercat, fingers flying and popping all over frets, combined the awe-inspiring speed and power of Eddie Van Halen with the soulfulness of Sly & The Family Stone’s Larry Graham.
Ever the generous bandleader, Washington ceded the spotlight to pianist Cameron Graves for a brand new song called “The End of Corporatism.” The fleet-fingered Graves shined. Later, drummers Ronald Bruner – Thundercat’s brother – and Tony Austin each showed their considerable chops in lengthy solos. For the first time in perhaps decades, concertgoers joyously watched a drum solo rather than use the occasion for a bathroom or beer break.
Throughout the night, the band's chemistry was undeniably visible. Considering that they're close enough to be brothers, that makes sense. The bulk of the band all came up together as LA kids and as toiling jazz musicians, playing together for years as part of a cooperative group called The West Coast Get Down. They jam with precision, intuition and exaltation. Get Down members have even played as a group on one another’s forthcoming solo albums. Thursday’s gig truly felt like a family affair – with Washington at the head of the table.
He clearly deserves this special moment. Although he might seem like an overnight sensation, Washington has earned it through blood, sweat and tears. He has played with hip-hop and jazz luminaries such as Snoop Dogg, Gerald Wilson, George Duke and Lauryn Hill. Most recently, he was part of the musicians that helped bring Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly into being. Wherever he goes, he makes those around him better.
How talented is Washington? “New York Times” jazz and pop critic, Ben Ratliff, just named “The Epic” as the year’s best album. “Rolling Stone” named it one of the “50 Best Albums of 2015,” saying “Washington makes a long-out-of-vogue strain of jazz feel wholly contemporary, just a funky lick away from the spiritual.” Testifying to his stature in the music world, Lamar producer Terrace Martin blew sax alongside Washington for a cameo Thursday night, while Battlecat, the famed Snoop Dogg and the Game knob turner, DJayed.
At the beginning of the show, Washington told the crowd how great it felt to be back in LA.
“We’ve been all over the world, but there’s no place like home,” he said. “We love you so much.”
More than three hours later, the rapturous crowd was on its feet, showing their love for one of the hardest working and most innovative artists in jazz today.