Kamasi Washington Takes Jazz to the Next Level in San Francisco

This is jazz that can dazzle the music mavens and impresarios while still remaining accessible to a more mainstream audience
Kamasi Washington

It’s a rainy Saturday night in San Francisco, but that isn’t stopping jazz fans from coming out in force for the rising star of the genre, saxophonist Kamasi Washington. The Los Angeles-based jazz prodigy has been generating a big buzz over the past couple years, including 2016 appearances at Coachella and New Orleans Jazz Fest. It’s a rare newcomer that can conjure diverse visions of jazz greats like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Sun Ra all at once, but Washington pulled it off with his 2015 masterpiece debut triple album The Epic and engaging live shows.

Washington can deliver the exploratory virtuoso playing ala Coltrane, yet he’s also assembled a band that conjures the multi-genre fusion of Davis’ Bitches Brew era as well as the cosmic spiritual vibe of the Sun Ra Arkestra. A three-night run here at the SF Jazz Center confirms that Washington has reached a prominent level of recognition, yet it still feels like he’s just getting started.

The San Francisco jazz scene seemed like it might be in trouble when the Yoshi’s on Fillmore went under, but the SF Jazz Center near City Hall has proven a formidable replacement over the past five years as the nexus point for Bay Area jazz lovers (along with the original Yoshi’s in Oakland.) The swank venue has a classy modern vibe, and its Miner Auditorium features steep rows of seating that offer a great view from anywhere in the room. There’s also a small dance floor up front for those who find it hard to stay seated when a groovier artist is on hand. Washington and his band the Next Step certainly qualify with the way they blend traditional jazz with the modern acid jazz movement that has found the band crossing over to win fans in the jam rock genre as well.

There are not many jazz bands that have two drummers, something many rock fans will associate with the Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers Band. The Next Step brings some of that polyrhythmic vibe to the music, and it makes for an infectious sound when combined with an upright bassist, an active keyboardist, and a female vocalist. Washington’s dad Ricky is a jazz man as well and often sits in with the band, adding some flute here on “Askim”. The tune gives everyone a chance to show their skills, and it seems like the band is well dialed in as they take the audience on a ride through a dynamic series of sonic movements.

Kamasi Washington may not sing himself, but he still makes a charismatic frontman, such as when he shares a short tale about being a big fan of the Charlie Brown Christmas show when he was a child. He introduces “Leroy and Lenisha” as his vision of a Peanuts Christmas in Inglewood, and the gentle major key melodies in the intro conjure images of Snoopy and the gang hanging out on a sunny winter’s day in LA. The song grows as Washington and his compadres build up the tune’s intensity to where he can solo over a big groove, before the wave crashes and the piano steps in for a playful solo. This is jazz that can dazzle the music mavens and impresarios while remaining accessible to a more mainstream audience, hence the crossover popularity that enables Washington to sell out three nights here.

“Black Man” features vocalist Patrice Quinn, who delivers a soulful militancy as she sings about a historic social struggle. Trombonist Ryan Porter is featured on his song “The Soulness” with Washington saying the band argues about what time signature the song is actually in. He playfully suggests it’s in “41/8” as the band launches into a toe-tapping groove, which also finds keyboardist Brandon Coleman at the forefront with his electric organ. Drummers Ronald Bruner Jr. and Tony Austin dazzle all night and are given the stage to themselves for a drum jam that does indeed conjure brief visions of a Grateful Dead show. The drum duo works out on a percussion jam that grabs the senses rather than making one think of going for a beverage or any other necessities.

The band brings the 90 minute set to a conclusion with “The Rhythm Changes”, a tune from The Epic that features Quinn singing over an uplifting mid-tempo rhythm before the song moves into a groovy workout. Washington takes a melodic solo in something of a swing jazz vein, as do trumpeter Igmar Thomas and trombonist Porter. Coleman dials up some funky electric piano that brings ‘70s funk master Deodato to mind as the drummers continue to keep the groove flowing with bassist Miles Mosley. As with the first big jam on “Askim”, Washington and his band take listeners on a sonic journey that’s a step further into the light fantastic than most traditional jazz combos.

By connecting traditional exploratory jazz with some of the modern acid jazz groove movement, Kamasi Washington and the Next Step are playing a key role in helping to promote jazz as an ongoing musical force in the 21st century.