Photo: Mike Kim
Photo: Mike Kim

Kamasi Washington Gives Us Butterflies

Kamasi Washington played Lincoln Theatre Saturday night and, sitting fat and happy in the audience, I had butterflies before he went on.

The opener, RVA-based Butcher Brown and his band, played a jazz and funk set to open, and they were great, but on either side of the Butcher Brown band drum kit, you could see Washington’s two-kit setup bookending the stage, hinting at what we could look forward to.

Washington released his debut record, The Epic, in 2015 (clocking in at just under three hours!), and has since made himself the face of contemporary jazz whether that’s for his contributions to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly or for his own solo material, like The Epic, or his subsequent records Harmony of Difference (2017) and Heaven and Earth (2018).

From the titles of his records, you can tell the man doesn’t shy away from high aspirations and that comes across in his live set. Like on his recordings, the live set is both challenging to listeners and lush. Lush in its melodies and instrumentation and challenging because there are no eight-bar solos and there are no three minute songs.

Onstage, Washington was flanked by vocalist Patrice Quinn, trombonist Ryan Porter, Brandon Coleman on keys, Miles Mosely on upright bass, and drummers Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr, musician Thundercat’s younger brother.

I may have been miffed at first to only see a seven piece band, knowing how orchestral Washington’s recordings can be, but that was soon forgotten. These players are among the very best.

Standouts from the night included a Miles Mosely composition called “Abraham,” which he led on upright bass and soloed over using a bowing technique and a wah-pedal, Brandon Coleman’s solo on “The Space Travelers Lullaby,” Patrice Quinn on “The Rhythm Changes” and the drum “conversation” between Bruner Jr. and Austin.

Onstage, Washington actually referred to “Space Travelers Lullaby” as the “Space Cadets Lullaby” and called Quinn the “queen of all space cadets.”

“To this day, I have no idea how she gets to gigs.”

Watching her onstage, you might have thought the same thing. She only sang on a few tracks and otherwise danced onstage. But her dancing was otherworldly. Imagine an oracle moving and swaying, or imagine a priestess dancing with someone, that someone lacking a body.

Still, my favorite song from the night was “Truth,” the final composition off of Washington’s Harmony of Difference record. One of the things I love about that record is how symphonic it is. The first five tracks feature five different melodies, all of which come back on the final track “Truth” and are played simultaneously. It’s sounds like it could be a cacophony, but it’s so far from it.

“I made Harmony of Difference,” Washington says onstage, “to remind us of just how beautiful we are, and that the difference between us is what makes us great.”

At this point in the set, he really had our ears.

“Diversity among all the people on this planet is not something to be tolerated,” he continued, “it’s something to be celebrated.”

Truth was the metaphor for that message and the night was a celebration of that message. Don’t miss Washington the next time he comes to town.

For more information about Kamasi Washington, go to www.kamasiwashington.com or follow the musician on Instagram at @kamasiwashington, Twitter at @KamasiW or Facebook at @kamasiw.

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Michael Loria

Michael Loria is a writer who focuses on art and music. For On Tap, his work includes a cover story on the Principal Conductor and Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda, for the December 2017 print edition, and features like his interviews with Carla Bruni and with Thievery Corporation. Collectively, he's penned more than 40 clips for the magazine.