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Kamasi Washington at Academic Community Hall of Hong Kong Baptist University


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Kamasi Washington
Academic Community Hall of Hong Kong Baptist University
Jazz World Live Series
Hong Kong
September 6, 2019

The anointed savior of 21st century jazz, Kamasi Washington is all about size, scale and scope. He writes big, brash, hummable themes, punctuates them with gutsy, garrulous, saxophone solos, and embraces weighty spiritual and sociological themes— assembling huge groups playing for peace and unity. His big ideas are presented in unwieldy packages: pointedly titled The Epic 2015's breakout statement of intent was spread across three discs; last year's follow-up Heaven and Earth stretched to ten sides of wax.

In short, Washington is a big man, with a big sound and a bigger vision—whose unapologetic excesses have been widely embraced as the greatest jazz crossover story of the decade. Washington, aged 38, recently wrapped a co-headline tour with jazz's reigning elder statesman, Herbie Hancock, twice that at 79. "Jazz for people who don't listen to jazz," sounds like a slur—but that's exactly what a "crossover" artist is, and Washington is as grand as an ambassador as we could hope for.

All of which made the very life-sized, flesh and blood figure who emerged at Hong Kong's Jazz World Live Series appear eerily mortal—and just maybe a little shorter than the shadow he carries around. Lurching into the warm, swaying, collectivist head of "Street Fighter Mas," this core touring septet seemed small and sounded thin compared to the lush layers and rich textures of Washington's recorded work—despite the presence of two drummers Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr. artfully dividing duties to conjure a pneumatic percussive churn.

Painting in broad brushstrokes on this block-sized canvas, Washington's seismic melodies and methodical progressions lay a comfy crash-pad for freewheeling solo slots and crowd-pleasing bluster, the spotlight passed around the stage with the drama of an arena rock show. A remark I've heard more than once from uninitiated friends dabbling in live jazz is not knowing when to clap at a show—but there was no fear of that with Washington's set.

Inevitably, the bandleader enjoyed most airtime, his rousing improvisations unravelling with a controlled intensity and clear trajectory, barreling repetitive riffs and tricks like a sparring boxer, soaring spiritually but always landing back on earth. Athletic and acrobatic, his crisp tone is often sprinkled with electronic effects empathically employed. More divisive was bassist Miles Mosley, who's outrageously spacey bow-work frequently became unrecognizably distorted with a barrage of effects pedals, cresting into hallucinogenic indulgences more Jimmy Page than Ron Carter.

Stage right throughout was the gyrating figure of Patrice Quinn, whose soaring vocals added the beating heart and earthy dynamism which defines Washington's festival-friendly sound, stretching out on The Epic's vocal-led standout "The Rhythm Changes." Third on the setlist was trombonist Ryan Porter's slick funk vamp "The Psalmist," which served to steady the ship and focus energies on the further-out journeys to come.

Seven became eight when the leader's father Rickey Washington joined the ranks on flute and soprano sax—adding a welcome third horn to the front line, a necessary ingredient of set-stealer "Truth." The centerpiece of 2017's Harmony of Difference EP (a mere half-hour stop gap anyone else would've made an album), "Truth" stoically and symbolically interweaves five concurrent melody lines to reflect human diversity, and "how beautiful we all really are."

Trippy stuff indeed—from a mellow mood of autumnal contention, the truth unwound slowly towards a blissed-out eruption of blazing sunlight, Washington's breathless sermon probing ever farther out into the stratosphere. But for all the yearning horn cries and braying sighs, this was a controlled cataclysm: Jazz is often characterized as lots of people talking at the same time, but in Washington's music, everyone is saying the same thing.

Warmed up and suitably vibed, "Will You Sing" was introduced by several spiraling minutes of Washington riffing a capella, his tone augmented with a heavy delay effect, building and braying melody lines on top of one another, locked to the steady pulse of his own extortions echoing around. The piece also served keyboardist Masayuki " Bigyuki" Hirano his greatest solo slot, executing a studious improvisation of Bachian depth and order.

It's impossible to attend, or write about, any public gathering in Hong Kong at this moment without acknowledging the turmoil and terror which has gripped the city for the past 14 weeks. Before and after the Friday night gig, punters huddled round televisions in nearby bars and restaurants to watch the latest bouts of violence live, as protestors clashed with police on city streets just two miles away from the concert.

Washington might close many of his shows with "Fists of Fury," but it felt written for this night in Hong Kong—the song comes from a defiant movie starring its most famous export, Bruce Lee, whose "Be Water" philosophy has been adopted as the protestors' organizing strategy. "When I'm faced with unjust injury," sang Quinn, "Then I change my hands / To fists of fury."

While Washington made no explicit statement on the city's affairs, such violent imagery was fuel to a charged mood, and something—perhaps the saxophonist's defiant fist raised in the final bluster, or whatever was written on Mosley's cheered-on t-shirt?—lit a match. The evening's closing applause gave way to a steady chant of "Free Hong Kong" which echoed out into the night air. Washington's music won't change the fate of this city in crisis, but for two hours at least, it transported a lucky few hundred residents somewhere else entirely. It was a hard jolt back to earth.

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