When an artist with albums entitled The Epic and Heaven and Earth comes to town, it’s easy to set high expectations for the performance. And yet, Kamasi Washington manages to make those titles seem like understatements when compared to the expansive, thoughtful performance the L.A. saxophonist delivered at Toronto’s Sony Centre for the Performing Arts on November 5th.
Touring in support of Heaven and Earth, a five LP (with the fifth hidden inside the album packaging), two and a half hour effort released earlier in 2018, Washington gave a freewheeling, maximalist treatment that showcased his outsized presence as a key figure of new-school jazz. Taking centre stage surrounded by a tight five piece supporting cast, Washington beamed as each player carried effortless solos throughout the show that gave texture and context to intricate melodies forming songs as long as 20 minutes in length.
While Kamasi Washington is the undisputed maestro of the group – now world-renowned after both high quality solo releases and high profile collaborations in the last three years – his inclusive style invited his band to indulge him in fusing together old and new school jazz, hip hop and R&B together to create dense, buttery jams that captivated the audience and stimulated all of the senses.
There is a distinct spiritual essence to Washington’s manner on stage. Clad in an embroidered gold dashiki, he expertly invoked waves of emotion that gave depth to his words and fiery play.
Washington smoothly transitioned from theme to theme throughout the night, taking a moment mid-show to honour Roy Hargrove, the legendary trumpeter who passed away last week. Sharing memories of attending each others shows and sitting in together in the West Coast jazz scene, Washington proceeded to pay tribute by adeptly covering Hargrove’s “Starmaker”.
To elevate the mood from tragedy to triumph, Washington next shared with the crowd his mantra that “diversity is not something to be tolerated but to be celebrated” before launching into “Truth”, explaining that the track embodied his words by layering five different melodies on top of each other to create dazzling harmony. Watching as six musicians melded seemingly independent lines into a cohesive output was attention grabbing to the point of sensory overload.
The band had barely broken a sweat by the time the show neared the two-hour mark, at which point Washington acknowledged his love for Toronto and introduced the show protest song, “Fists of Fury”. With the restless opener from Heaven and Earth, the audience got one last blast that threw listeners back and forth between peaks and valleys in a mesmerizing arrangement. After carrying the audience through an effortless two hours of raucousness, sadness and triumph, the call to action served as a poignant end to an evening that inspired as much as entertained