November 3, 2020
In part six of SOUND/STAGE, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s distinctly different film series for pandemic times, the spotlight falls firmly upon the burly robed frame of composer/arranger/saxophonist Kamasi Washington, who has been creating a stir both pro and con.
Some think he is the biggest thing to hit jazz since the emergence of Wynton Marsalis and the Young Lions in the early 1980s, or even since John Coltrane. Others who subscribe to the bebop-centric tenets of the Jazz Police are begging to differ. Yet Washington’s big-thinking, all-embracing music has little use for categories. I hear him as a consolidator of most of the roots and subsequent developments in Black music, coupled with classical pretensions.
Washington — whose first name Kamasi is a corruption of Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti region of Ghana — burst full-blown out of his native Los Angeles onto the national scene only in 2015 with the release of a sprawling triple album aptly titled The Epic, a grand-sounding collection that solders an encyclopedia of idioms onto a groove-grounded jazz base. He may be even bigger in Japan than in his own country. When I visited the gigantic nine-floor Tower Records in Tokyo’s lively Shibuya district two years ago, the sixth floor had two larger-than-life displays worthy of a superstar — one devoted to the latest find from the Coltrane archives, and the other to Washington’s follow-up double album, Heaven and Earth.
Washington’s appearance on SOUND/STAGE, the longest episode so far (over 46 minutes), will give you a good idea of his sound world as he expands upon his latest project, the score to Netflix’s Michelle Obama documentary film, Becoming. The soundtrack album, which comes out Dec. 11 but is already streaming on Apple Music, is rather disappointing — a conventional series of short film cues that go nowhere. Yet this live version is far more involving, for it realizes the expressive potential of much of the raw material of the score that the album barely hints at, with a 20-member ensemble similar to those that power The Epic and Heaven and Earth.
Washington gets plenty of opportunities to burn on tenor sax, often with the gritty edge of early Pharoah Sanders. There are two keyboardists — one (Brandon Coleman) specializes in gospel-like organ glissandos and fills and synthesizer solos, the other (Cameron Graves) is adept at the most intricate bop runs and rapid unison passages on acoustic grand piano. Some of the instrumental numbers have lyrics sung by Patrice Quinn and Taylor Graves, who also take the role of the billowing wordless choir — a standard feature in Washington’s sound world.
“Announcement” is transformed with characteristic Kamasi grandeur — a steady rock, Latin-accented groove, wordless vocals, churchy organ rising and falling like ocean waves, Kamasi delivering the spiritual message on tenor with fervor inside and outside. Kamasi’s father Mickey Washington, a veteran of the Los Angeles jazz scene, can be heard on alto flute in “Looking Forward.” “Take in the Story” becomes a moving meditation with muted trumpet lead by Dontae Winslow. “I Am Becoming” throws in a distinctly rock guitar solo by Matt Haze. The catchy tune “The Rhythm Changes,” transplanted from The Epic, serves as a triumphal finale; unlike the soundtrack album version, this one has the vocals and a Washington sax solo that evokes Sonny Rollins as it builds and builds.
As in past episodes, the video cameras — directed by Charlie Buhler — never stop circulating around the Hollywood Bowl stage, seemingly trying to create motion and excitement. It is nighttime, so more use can be made of the many colors available to the Bowl’s lighting system, and Washington’s socially-distanced band has ample room to spread out all over the vast stage.
All of this massive sound with uplifting sentiments plays to an empty amphitheater, a poignant reminder of the times. Before the shutdown, Washington was attracting a lively, youthful following that suggests his we’re-all-in-this-together vision may be a path forward for jazz, Black music, and society in general. So it’s disconcerting to hear Kamasi introduce his musicians at set’s end to complete silence, instead of applause.