It started with a sharp report from the drums and preemptory blast from sax and trombone, before a gale force tumult of modal jazz surfing a visceral, rhythmic surge exploded, first Brandon Coleman on keyboards and then Kamasi Washington on tenor building incendiary solos. It ended, over 90 minutes later with the ecstatic, thunderous climax of Malcom’s Theme, saxes, trombone, voice, howling synths all combining in a wild incantation over the tumult of two drum kits (yes, two!). Although much used, its hard to find a better word than ‘Epic’ to describe both the music and show Kamasi Washington and his band put on. “It’s my first time here in UK – in Bristol” declared Kamasi, but word had gone ahead. The Lantern was packed (no seats, it was a standing gig), somehow the buzz has spread around his debut release, triple CD set The Epic (what else?).
The elements of the music are familiar, but mixed up and combined in distinctive ways. After the hurricane of jazz, came Final Thought, funky doesn’t quite cover it, with Coleman producing what looked like a Moog Latitude keytar (think Herbie Hancock – 1980s) and Miles Mosley on bass demonstrating what the array of pedals and effects he had in front of him could do to an acoustic bass, at one point sounding like screaming lead guitar. An epic narrative requires light and shade however and there was plenty of that. Washington’s hymn to his grandmother Henrietta our Hero had Patrice Quinn‘s warm vocal delivered over a piano sound that sounded for all the world like a slightly clanky parlour piano and Washington’s father Rickey on flute joining the leader’s tenor and Ryan Porter‘s trombone to provide an exultant choir-like backing. There were plenty of features for the band. Porter blew up a storm on his grooving arrangement of Oscarlypso, and the twin drum attack of Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr was unleashed for a firestorm introduction to The Message, another pulsating latin tinged funk workout. Kamasi Washington’s declamatory, by turns burning and occasionally wistful sax was the centrepiece however. The solos build and build and then build some more, often leading the band into anthemic choruses at the climax of tunes. It’s frequently, there’s no other word, epic.
There is an almost casual fusing and juxtaposing of styles that range from the exploratory probing of sixties jazz, through thunderous funk and beat and groove driven music. It makes for an exhilarating experience with a group of musicians steeped in the music, connected to family and community – half the band grew up together and have formed out of a Los Angeles scene. The music and lyric carries messages, its committed but delivered with a humour and verve that is irresistible. An epic gig (or course).