It’s a warm autumn Friday night in San Francisco where typically seasonal “Indian summer” weather prevails as the Warfield Theater is packed once again here on October 19 for… a jazz band? Rare is the jazz artist that can crossover to wider appeal to fill the Warfield’s 2,300 capacity space, but Kamasi Washington is just such a multi-dimensional artist, and his star is continuing to rise in 2018. The theater’s lower level is completely jammed, and there are only a few empty seats on the upper sides in the balcony.
The Los Angeles-based saxman took the jazz world by storm in 2015 with his monumental triple album The Epic, winning fans in the funk, R&B, hip-hop, acid jazz, and jamband sectors too as he mixed genre-bending sonic landscapes conjuring visions of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sun Ra, Herbie Hancock, and more. There also aren’t many jazz bands touring with two drummers, generating polyrhythmic grooves that can tap into territory first charted by the Grateful Dead, Santana, and the Allman Brothers Band.
The band’s groovier element is featured early and often here at the Warfield, starting with the show opener “Street Fighter Mas”, a mid-tempo number with a fat bass line from 2018’s new album Heaven and Earth. The band’s sound continues to open up on “Rhythm Changes” from The Epic, with female vocalist Patrice Quinn singing of love and beauty before some tasty horn solos. There’s also some great electric piano work that recalls the exploratory sounds of Herbie Hancock on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew album.
Washington follows by announcing that this is a special day because if you want to have a baby that grows up to be a great bass player, this is the day you want to have the baby since it’s bassist Miles Mosley’s birthday. That serves as an introduction to Mosley’s song “Abraham”, which he opens by using a bow to create some spacey whale call sounds. The band comes in slowly but surely to build a big sound that leads to a hot jam featuring a crowd-pleasing workout on the groove from the Jimi Hendrix classic “Who Knows”.
Another highlight occurs with “Truth” from 2017’s Harmony of Difference EP, with Washington speaking of how he wrote the song “to show how beautiful we all are and that our differences make us beautiful”. Writing groovy songs that celebrate diversity puts Washington in a league with acclaimed Bay Area singer-songwriter Michael Franti, and music like this is certainly something the world could use a lot more of in this foul era of the Trump regime’s demonization of those who are different. “Diversity is not to be tolerated, it’s to be celebrated,” Washington continues, explaining that he wrote the song with five melodies “to show how beautiful this world will be when we all come together”.
The song takes the audience on a compelling sonic journey with a danceable groove and dynamic solos from Washington and the other players that unite the audience in collective harmony in appreciation of these melodies. Washington is clearly the star of the show, but he demonstrates his musical maturity time and again by stepping back to allow the other players to shine, such as on this jam where the band lays back while the drummers and bassist dig into a tight groove that sets the stage for a big piano solo.
“Will You Sing” is another key track from the new album featured here with vocalist Patrice Quinn imploring the audience to join her. “With our songs, one day we will change the world… will you sing?” she asks in the beginning and throughout the song, with the band suggesting that uniting through appreciation for the universal power of music can and will help change the world. This sentiment was a guiding force in the socio-cultural musical revolution that put the San Francisco music scene on the map in the 1960s, and so it’s inspiring to witness Kamasi Washington and his cohorts carrying the torch for the movement here some 50 years later. Washington delivers some of his best playing of the night, leading the band through another stellar jam while the audience grooves out in sonic bliss.
As the jam segues into “Fists of Fury”, Quinn steps up again with a powerful sentiment for political revolution as she declares, “Our time as victims is over, we will no longer ask for justice, instead will take our retribution!” The swinging jam finds the band rocking out as a musical tour de force with Washington tapping into the cosmos on his celestial solos, uniting the audience once again in musical peace and harmony to close the set. The show has contained only six songs, but each one has featured an extended musical exploration to deliver 90 minutes of sonic satisfaction.
The albums give a clear sense of what a dynamic artist Kamasi Washington is, with so many different moods and styles. But the music takes on a greater power in the live setting, particularly in how the band emphasizes the grooves to elevate the jazzy tunes into a dance party mode that has kept the Warfield moving and grooving all evening. Another element that stands out more is Washington’s humble devotion to a spiritual revolution through music to help manifest a better world. In this sense, Kamasi Washington has become one of the more important artists of the decade.