Kamasi Washington Delivers Vigorous & Freewheeling Performance to Vermont (SHOW REVIEW)

Kamasi Washington’s two-hour performance at Higher Ground on November 17th wasn’t exactly a carbon copy of his much anticipated, but ultimately disappointing June appearance during the Burlington Discover Jazz Fest, but it was close. It was, in fact, marginally better, if only because bandleader and saxophonist, whose reputation is reaching critical mass these days, talked less between numbers and, in doing, was occasionally even amusing (his childhood reminiscence of drumming).

But while it’s generous and thoughtful to give verbal accolades to his various band members in the midst of a tune, such intervals disrupt the flow of the musicianship in progress and the lack of sustained momentum was the major shortfall of the performance. Not that the music wasn’t pleasant and well-played (aside from a couple flubbed cold stops even after hand-signals from Washington), but for all his ambition, it is quite obvious Kamasi Washington is still searching for his own voice as an instrumentalist and a composer.

Not that he doesn’t (and didn’t) strike a chord with the packed room in South Burlington. Every demographic represented in the audience was with him from the moment he swaggered on stage and they responded in kind to a melange of influences that may have sounded vaguely familiar but not, in the end, not wholly fresh. The rise of conversation during virtually every relatively quiet interlude suggested this was the ‘Friday night of the weekend’ version of ‘Sunday morning jazz brunch’ background sounds, hardly the forte of an artist who, with no false modesty, called one of his records The Epic.

Kamasi Washington’s own vigorous sax playing almost always got the attention it deserved. More than faint echoes of Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter appeared in almost cyclical rotation, so while those are worthwhile sources, the Californian still sounds a distance removed from a singular style with his horn. Likewise, the eclectic choice of material he favors reveals some readily discernible roots as well, so the strains of Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes and the Crusaders all enticed the listeners, even if the response on the floor wasn’t altogether visible: it was jam-packed with a density that even extended to the back bar area at times.

A cull from Washington’s most recent release was the most memorable selection of the night, even if not the most familiar: trombonist Ryan Porter’s musical adaptation of the nursery rhyme “Little Boy Blue” was the only moment vocalist Patrice Quinn was more than a tangential presence. But even  “Humility,” from the EP titled Harmony of Difference, sounded like something the former leader and co-founder of the great fusion band Weather Report might’ve written for his former employer, Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley. Nevertheless, that number, like the furious closer as well as a feverish, extended encore, hearkened directly to gospel music Kamasi Washington might reasonably pursue further.

This freewheeling interval was a rare occurrence during the evening, yet it reinforced the impression of the technical prowess within the group. Joshua Crumbly, for instance, laid down a thick bottom with both acoustic and electric basses, and his dual rhythm section partners, Ronald Bruner Jr. and Robert Miller, are comparably facile on their kits. But the latter duo’s  drum ‘conversation,’ as Kamasi called it, was a microcosm of the group’s overall approach to jamming that night, comprised largely of monologues rather than dialogues, rudimentary call and response, and, apart from altering tempo and volume up and down, precious little open-ended playing apart from the compositions.

Spotlights afforded both keyboardists early in the single set were similarly fundamental segments during which Brandon Coleman and Jamael Dean soloed while the rest of the instrumental octet comped along in support. There were no real chances taken during such intervals, or the show as a whole, unless of course, it was deliberate decision for Kamasi Washington to wear his influences on his sleeve as readily as his heart: as with the June appearance in Burlington, he brought out his father, Ricky Washington, to play flute and saxophone for the better part of the night, which only emphasized that, ambitious as is the younger man, he is still going through the usual growing and learning process any fledgling musician must.

Nevertheless, the most encouraging aspect of this highly-touted jazzer’s work may be that he has plenty of time to continue absorbing the lessons of his predecessors as a distinctly personal approach coalesces in his writing and playing (not to mention his stewardship of the band). Notwithstanding the readily interchangeable nature of Kamasi Washington’s  two Green Mountain appearances—as well as his collaborations over time with the disparate likes of Kendrick Lamar and Ryan Adams—such a substantial metamorphosis appears as inevitable as the profound rewards to follow.


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