Concert Hall, March 13
“We’re going to go on a little journey together,” Kamasi Washington told us at the outset. Nearly two hours later when that journey ended what had been striking about the trip was its the sheer scale. The LA-based tenor saxophonist called his 2015 magnum opus The Epic (which, at almost three hours’ duration, was hardly an exaggeration), and indeed an epic quality pervades his conception in a way more usually associated with orchestral music or progressive rock than jazz.
In shape and instrumentation this was very similar to his 2016 concert at the Metro, only with significantly better sound. It was still loud for jazz and lacked a little clarity, but gone was the deluge of sonic sludge in which that Metro show had mired us. Besides, two drum-kits within an eight-piece band will tend push the volume up, and this actually suited the anthemic ambitions and rock and funk aesthetic underpinning much of the music.
The strongest sections of some compositions, including Askim and Truth, were genuinely enthralling, with the latter a bold and involving exercise in multi-part counterpoint. In improvising terms Washington was very much his own show’s star. As with his compositional ideas he didn’t deal in polite chamber jazz, preferring grand gestures and hair-raising climaxes, and his solo on Black Man became a wild fire of apocalyptic scale blazing through the thickets of drums and cymbals.
Yet the line between majestic and bombastic is reed-thin, and Washington and his concept could too easily tip from one to the other. This contrasted with the recent concert by another significant contemporary tenor player, Shabaka Hutchings (and his South African band the Ancestors), who unleashed even more torrential music without crossing that line.
Drummers Robert Miller and especially Ronald Bruner were excitement machines capable of unstoppable momentum, although they could also choke the music’s ability to breathe. Keyboards player Brandon Michael was pivotal texturally, but only received one significant solo, and singer Patrice Quinn was often more an irritant than an asset.