Typically the Franklin Music Hall (formerly the Electric Factory) hosts jam bands, heavy metal bands, and cover bands, certainly not jazz artists. Kamasi Washington and his septet are different. They practically filled the venue on November 9th with 2000 or so mostly standing patrons of the most diverse audience this writer has ever seen at a show. From those of us that grew up listening to all the great jazz of the ‘60s and ‘70s to the younger clientele attuned to rap music, hip-hop and adventurous R&B, Washington’s following is completely unlike that of Icons like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Wynton Marsalis who draw serious, more sedate crowds in elegant venues. In fact, the noise level around the bar and outer reaches of the Franklin Music Hall was rather boisterous, detracting a bit from the performance, which was, despite the trimmings and perhaps the hype, mostly a contemporary jazz performance.
Billed as the Heaven & Earth tour, Washington and group played four of their seven selections from the double two and half hour project released earlier this year in a two-hour performance. Along with Washington on tenor, soulmates Ryan Porter (trombone) and Brandon Coleman (keys, vocals) were supported by a dynamic rhythm section of inventive double bassist Miles Mosely and two drummers, Ronald Bruner Jr., and Tony Austin. The vivacious Patrice Quinn was the vocalist and dancer. All played on the album.
Their set began with “Re Run” from The Epic with Washington taking an extended solo that bordered on funk and at times Coltrane. Mosely’s bowed bass solo was especially thrilling. Next was “Journey,” the first of four from H&E with Quinn’s vocals trying to emulate both the choir and orchestra that are on the record. Ryan Porter’s “The Psalmist” followed with mind-blowing keyboard work, on electric piano, synths and vocoder from Coleman and a gorgeous trombone solo from Porter. At one point both Coleman and Quinn were exchanging vocals.
Washington has a strong banter between songs, but his comments were, for the most part, economical in this show. Nonetheless, it’s fascinating to know that most of his band have been playing together for twenty years or so since they were around 12 years old. “Truth” was in a similar vein and it was at this point in the show that echoes of Sun Ra and Coltrane were evident, mostly through Quinn’s ethereal singing and gesturing and Washington’s impassioned soloing. That led to “Drums” where both Bruner Jr. and Austin began in tandem before each soloed separately and creatively.
The two most dynamic tunes of the evening came next with a declamatory “Will You Sing” featuring the entire ensemble and principally Quinn to the finale, the kung-fu theme ‘Fists of Fury” where each band member soloed in between some strong ensemble work on the melody, taken to even higher levels through Quinn’s vocals. It was the perfect closer to an energetic, visually and aurally appealing performance.
The electric, funk-fusion band Butcher Brown from Richmond, VA opened, featuring multi-instrumentalist (playing both tenor sax and trumpet) Marcus Tenney. He was joined by a lineup that included a thunderous electric bass, electric guitar, keyboards, and drums. It’s as if this unit picked up where electric units of Miles Davis left off, fusing a sort of garage punk jazz funk on the low end to sophisticated jazz, though quite loud, on the other. It was energizing and served as a great opener for Washington’s mostly acoustic ensemble.
Kamasi Washington is a leader in the resurgence of jazz. It’s heartwarming to see such a turnout and a beautiful connection of unity between performers and audience.