It was a sight to behold. Kamasi Washington packed Boston’s Royale nightclub on November 20th with college-aged kids chomping at the bit to hear jazz music, and on a Monday night no less. We’re not talking about jazz-fusion, or Medeski, Martin and Wood-style jammy jazz. Kamasi Washington dished up ninety minutes of straight jazz that literally had kids in dashikis pogoing in the front row.
Whether it’s Herbie Hancock, Winton Marsalis or Chick Corea, modern jazz shows tend to have an older, Boomer-heavy audience that’s more interested in sitting in their seat and taking in the music than what we saw at Royale. Berklee College of Music is just down the road and that might have contributed to the demographics, but Washington’s affiliation with Kendrick Lamar, arguably the greatest rapper of the 21st century, has done a lot to get him on the radar of music lovers who tend to stray towards mainstream tastes. Lamar brought Washington onboard to arrange the strings on the 2015 masterpiece, To Pimp A Butterfly, and in the time since, Washington, Lamar, DJ/Producer Flying Lotus, Bassist Thundercat and Pianist/Producer/Sax player Terrace Martin have become a loose-knit crew of artists from different genres and disciplines whose mutual contributions to each other’s projects has allowed them all to operate outside the conventional boundaries of their musical scene.
Washington demonstrated his ability to weave conventional jazz with experimental elements by showcasing duel drummers and pianists, and while one of the cats on keyboard played it straight all night, the other grooved his way through some Moog-driven vocoder leads on his Moog that sounded more like Massive Attack than Miles Davis.
The set opened with “Change of the Guard,” which is the first track on his triple disc modern classic, The Epic, and the set closed with another song off the same album. A pair of songs off his latest EP, Harmony of Difference, filled in the middle of the set and they played a composition written by a bandmate called “Little Boy Blue” that is as beautiful a jazz vocal tune as you could ask for. Unfortunately, its slow tempo effectively put the breaks on the energy that had been building up for the first half of the show, which made the audience a little less enthused about the rest of the set as they may have been otherwise.
While there’s nothing to knock against the instrumental execution of the show, there’s a deal of room for Washington to improve on the performance end. His father is a clarinet player and usually after a song or two, he’s introduced as a special guest. However, for all intensive purposes, he’s a member of the live band. Additionally, Washington tells the same anecdotes each night that are funny the first time you hear them, but if you’re a repeat attendee, hearing his schtick a second time around makes the first show feel a little less special.
You could argue Washington should change up his performance style, and while there are fair criticisms to be made, it’s hard to tell him to fix what’s already working. His popularity is on the rise and he’s reaching an audience that hasn’t been paying attention to jazz music for over a generation. Kamasi Washington is literally the best thing to happen to jazz since Weather Report and based on the results seen during his set in Boston, continuing to follow the path he’s paved for himself will continue to serve him well.