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Kamasi Washington at the Ogden Theatre


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Kamasi Washington
Ogden Theatre
Denver, CO
October 26, 2018

Kamasi Washington is an ambitious guy. His first major label album was a 3-CD release running 173 minutes, The Epic (Brainfeeder, 2015). He followed that up with a mere 6-song release, but most recently came out with yet another 3-CD set Heaven and Earth (Young Turks, 2018). Obviously, he has a lot to say.

It's not just the amount of music he releases that's above average; he's an overachiever in the scope of his music as well. For instance, on Heaven and Earth, he used 17 different musicians. Not counting the 26 piece orchestra and the 13 member choir. I'll do the math for you; that's 56 musicians. Here's another example. The latest album features a cover of the Goffin/King tune, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" which is usually done as a three or four minute pop tune. Washington's version? Nine minutes, forty seconds.

For his current tour, Washington has stripped the band down to a mere seven members. However, all of them played on the latest album and are therefore quite sympathetic to Washington's sound but, obviously, some of the broad sweep and grandeur were left in the studio. Nevertheless, Washington's intricacies and eccentricities shone through.

Sonically, Washington falls in the jazz camp with frequent spaces in his compositions for improvised solos by him and all of his band mates. Friday night at the Ogden, we heard frantic bebop, funk and flowing, polyrhythmic, spacious pieces with many ever-changing segments. Patrice Quinn on vocals sang several songs with lyrics and added wordless vocals on many other tunes. Most of the time, it was instrumental music.

He chose songs from each of his three releases. "Rhythm Changes" was an entry from The Epic and "Truth" appeared on the EP Harmony of Difference (Young Turks, 2017). Two of the highlights were from Heaven and Earth and came at the end of the show, "Show Us the Way" and "Fists of Fury." Both of those employed the vast soundscape, dialed back only slightly with the smaller band.

Washington had solos on all the tunes. He has a big throaty sound that would occasionally transform into a classic R&B honk when rising atop a frenetic crescendo. Many of his solos were thoughtful and melodic, but sometimes he would put the hammer down and spew John Coltrane-like sheets of notes. He stuck with the same tenor saxophone throughout the evening.

The band included two drummers, Robert Miller and Ronald Bruner Jr. , brother of bassist Stephen Bruner a/k/a Thundercat. Occasionally, they took turns keeping time, but most of the time they were both playing. They got a solo (duet (dual)) slot taking turns in their own cutting contest. Both drummers displayed hands so fast they were generally a blur and connecting the visuals with the sound was sometimes challenging.

Miles Mosley was a bassist with personality. He had his turn in the spotlight on "Abraham," a funk tune where he manhandled his acoustic bass and threw in some vocals as well. It's not often (or maybe never) that you see the bow employed on an acoustic bass during a solo in a funk song, but Mosley did it; and it worked. Funky sawin' on the strings.

Ryan Porter played trombone and stood side by side with Washington on stage. Although that gave the band the same front line as the Crusaders, they didn't recreate that sound, in large part because the two playing in unison occurred only occasionally. Brandon Coleman was the keyboard player handling an array of synthesizers which he sometimes switched to a piano sound. "Show Us the Way" was a highlight for Coleman where he had an extended solo which got into McCoy Tyner territory at times.

Washington chatted with the crowd between songs, introducing and gushing over his band mates as well as stating some of his personal philosophy. He explained how he's traveled all over the world and met many different kinds of people and that he'd like to see humans get beyond mere tolerance and affirmatively celebrate our differences and how beautiful the world will be when we all come together. Puzzlingly, that seemed at odds with a song like "Fists of Fury" with this refrain:

Our time as victims is over
We will no longer ask for justice
Instead we will take our retribution

In a recent interview, Washington discussed that song and explained that he views it as a call to action, but not violence. He said that people should not wait for change to come from the top, but rather take matters into their own hands and do what they can. He described how some people might be able to organize a million person march, but others might be better at coaching baseball or helping a neighbor. The point is to have many people doing what they can rather than simply waiting for justice to happen by itself. "Fists of Fury" also has these lyrics:

I use hands
To help my fellow man
I use hands
To do just what I can
And when I face with unjust injury
Then I change my hands
To fists of fury

Speaking of deciphering Washington, his current release has a secret compartment. For a while, I couldn't figure out if Heaven and Earth was a double or a triple CD. The source of the confusion was that the third disc is sealed in the CD cover with no opening. His website has instructions for liberating the disc. The instructions are in the form of a wordless comic; good for any language!

Kamasi Washington: more than meets the eye. Or ear.

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