Forget harmony, Kamasi Washington and his exceptional band, The Next Step, are here to preach the virtue of divergence. The kind you’d hear sparingly, even at the best jazz clubs in Australia.
Well, not entirely; they are here to show how top-tier musicians can veer off onto their own paths, only to meet back at one singular spot, occasionally checking in on the boiling butter of our melted minds and the swoon of our swaying souls. Kamasi and his band are here to remind the world of the cosmic, mythical qualities of jazz and are perfectly fine with breaking our hearts, if it means shattering our very idea of what modern music should be.
The air was thick with swells of new-age jazz and classically hypnotic funk at the Sydney Opera House as the lauded revivalist took the stage, built for an in-the-round style concert. As part of an 8-piece band of equally talented musicians, including his father Rickey Washington and upright bass virtuoso Miles Mosley, Kamasi proved his worth ten times over with cerebral long-form pieces resting on vastly different, sometimes incongruous, styles.
Granted, this was a condensed version of the band, taking away the string section that often adds drama to Washington’s exploratory narratives. That was less of an issue when it just meant the band had to work that much harder to build a bigger sound, one perfectly suited for such an iconic venue as SOH’s Concert Hall.
It started with “Street Fighter Mas”, a cosmic slop of bass brimming with the kind of vitality and propulsive energy that would thread through the entire night. And energy was the only real constant here, along with the pillowy soul of vocalist Patrice Quinn who often seemed to be defiantly working against the band as she sang notes designed to soothe the often harsh sting that’d come with so many contrasting tones.
All these musicians stood on different platforms in the astral plane, ascending higher than the rest when it came their time to shine, but always finding a way back to level with the others. Whether it was Brandon Coleman adding funk and swagger to each piece with his synths and keytar like a new-age Roger Troutman, or twin drummers Robert Miller Jr and Ronald Bruner Jr on opposing drum kits, responsible for the set’s most explosive moment when their stations had a fiery “conversation” – sometimes, an argument – with each other.
Songs like “Truth” and Coleman’s talk box driven “Giant Feelings” stood out from these adventurous jazz essays, but it was “Rhythm Changes” – the second song in the set – that spoke the loudest for Washington’s astute leadership. These bobs and weaves of erratic musical genius just wouldn’t have had that quintessential connective tissue if Washington wasn’t there to step in and bring it all together, like a time-travelling magician able to bring multiple timelines together at the snap of a finger, or the expert blow of his spiritual sax.
It was utterly compelling stuff, reflecting the oddities of Sun Ra, the casual cool of Miles Davis, and something new all together. Kamasi Washington deserves all the praise he gets.
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Feature image by Daniel Boud.