September 9th, 2015
Bottom Lounge, Chicago, IL
As an extremely casual jazz fan, Kamasi Washington’s three hour epic aptly titled Epic is the first jazz record I’ve listened to non-stop in probably five years. For those unfamiliar, Kamasi Washington is an L.A. saxophonist with a laundry list of great recording credits, including work for Snoop Dogg, Flying Lotus, Ryan Adams, Gerard Wilson, Lauryn Hill, Chaka Khan, Broken Bells, and of course, stamping his fingerprints all over the album of the year, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Fellow LxLer Todd and I caught Kamasi Washington and his band – filled with musicians Kamasi has played with for over 20 years – at the Bottom Lounge, and it officially ruined the rest of the rock shows we go to this year.
I hadn’t previously been to the Bottom Lounge, but was impressed by the beer selection, atmosphere, and sound of the venue. Before the show, we met Kamasi’s keyboardist Brandon Coleman and trombonist Ryan Porter while hanging out at the bar. Both had some pretty awesome stories from their touring travels with Kamasi – whom they have known and played with since they were kids – and other acts including Alicia Keys and Earth, Wind, & Fire’s Al MacKay. Stories from their childhood and and travels, including a call to the Austrian president to get a band-mate out of jail in time for a gig, were pretty incredible and promising for the show to come.
Drummer Makaya McCraven served as the opener with his band, with extremely powerful but swift drumming. He plays sort of like a hip hop drummer forced to play jazz, a pretty unique style to experience live.
Kamasi then came on stage, fielding two drummers (Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner), a stand-up bassist (Miles Mosely), female vocalist (Patrice Quinn), trombonist (Ryan Porter), and keyboard and keytarist (Brandon Coleman). Kamasi’s father Rickey, who was running the merch table, also joined the band for about half the set, playing soprano sax and flute. The band’s life-long familiarity and friendship plays into the comfort and fluidity with which the band plays.
Kamasi opened with “Change of the Guard”, the Epic opener that perfectly captures the politically-charged America we currently live in. Kamasi’s style of jazz is fused with hip hop and funk, but definitely channels the spiritual and spacey sounds of John Coltrane. Other highlights included the soulful salute to his grandmother, “Henrietta Our Hero”, the smooth lounge sway of “The Rhythm Changes”, and the fluid “Final Thought”. While Kamasi certainly plays with incredible dexterity and power, it’s the golden tones he consistently strikes with his saxophone that really takes his playing to a new level.
Todd and I definitely learned the hard way when you are used to going to rock shows, the musicianship of a jazz show can certainly make everything else look like child’s play. Kamasi is a force that has not only infiltrated the hip hop and rock world, but will likely be delivering great jazz records for years to come.
P.S. You can learn more about Kamasi and watch him live on NPR’s Jazz Night in America.