Kamasi Washington regularly gets slapped with the tagline ‘the biggest thing to hit jazz for years’, and the American saxophonist very much lived up to that billing at the National Concert Hall on Thursday. Big man, big tunes, big success.
This was a concert that had musical virtuosity to probably match anything this venue has hosted in its 157-year existence, and it is unlikely these hallowed walls have ever seen this level of technical ability married to such groove and improvisation.
The 36-year-old is at the head of a pack of a new generation of jazzers, many of them based in his home state of California and releasing through the Brainfeeder label where he put out his debut album, The Epic. They’re steeped in the tradition of Coltrane, Davis, etc, but are also comfortable taking a step towards hip-hop or electronica. It’s no surprise that Washington has played on a Kendrick Lamar record, or that The Epic was hailed by old-school jazzheads and younger groovers alike.
At the NCH, Washington was backed by vocalist Patrice Quinn and a six-piece band that featured two drum kits. His father Rickey Washington was on flute and soprano sax; while any fears about Thundercat’s absence in the bass department were soon allayed by emerging star Joshua Crumbly, who began with an upright instrument before switching to the electric version for most of the two-hour set.
Trombone and keyboards completed a lineup of players who were given ample opportunity to express themselves over tunes that sometimes ran for 15 glorious minutes. Perhaps it was a first-night-of-tour glitch, but Quinn’s vocals did struggle at times to be heard above the instruments while leading on the set’s song sections.
The band sliced and diced at will, with reworkings of familiar tracks always remaining interesting, and regularly straying into the realm of magnificent. ‘Re Run’ zips along on the album; here it was re-assembled with a smokey, laid-back rhythm into which Kamasi and trombonist Ryan Porter weaved their magic.
Rumours of the demise of jazz have obviously been greatly exaggerated — on tonight’s evidence, the genre is in very rude health indeed.
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