Kamasi Washington – The New Guard of Jazz

09/21/2015

In the wake of his recent collaborations with Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington has put himself in the perfect position to reinvigorate jazz music, and if the young faces crowding the Warfield Saturday night are any indication, he is doing just that. Washington’s opening set for Snarky Puppy marks his first performance in San Francisco, and he left us wanting more. Wanting a lot more actually, because material from the tenor saxophonist’s sprawling solo debut The Epic, does not lend itself particularly well to a 45 minute opening set. That being said, Washington, along with his seven piece band, and several guest performers used their time effectively to melt faces and blow minds. The pace was set right out of the gate with an appropriately behemoth performance of The Epic’s opening track “Change of the Guard.”

There is no shortage of virtuosity in the company Washington keeps. His band, The Next Step is made up of his long-time friends and collaborators, many of whom are in his previous project The West Coast Get Down. The live ensemble included acoustic bassist Miles Mosley, Ryan Porter on trombone, vocals by Patrice Quinn, Brandon Coleman and Cameron Graves on keys, and two drum kits manned by Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr. One of the most endearing parts of the show was seeing excitement and enthusiasm of the folks on stage as they listened to their colleagues take a solo and explore the space of Washington’s grandiose arrangements with improvisation.

The short time we had with Kamasi Washington gave a glimpse of a very humble and grateful artist who would rather nod to the talent that surrounds him than bask in the spotlight himself. An indication of this selflessness was the choice to feature a new composition by bassist Miles Mosley in the set. Which doesn’t sound like a particularly “big” gesture, but when the entire set only has room for four of your characteristically epic compositions, the gesture is significant.

Washington’s gratitude and admiration were on display again when he invited producer, rapper and alto saxophonist Terrace Martin to the stage for a performance of “Final Thought.” Washington acknowledged Martin’s role in getting him his first road gig with Snoop Dogg, and enlisting him to aid in the arrangement on Kendrick Lamar’s groundbreaking hip-hop masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly.

The set was rounded out with “The Rhythm Changes,” one of several songs on The Epic which was co-written by Patrice Quinn and features her soul-inflating vocals. However, before the final track began Washington had some more credit to dole out. This time the acknowledgement was directed at the “young man” running Washington’s merch booth, who happened to be his dad Rickey Washington. Rickey, being a jazz man, fostered his son’s pursuit of his musical aspirations, and created a refuge for him and his friends to explore their musical talent. When Rickey Washington joined “The Next Step” on clarinet for their final song the image of community, and family, within the music was completed. In all, the set concluded too soon, and I eagerly await Kamasi Washington’s next visit to the Bay Area as a headliner.