20 minutes after the soft-opening of the 2016 edition of the Ottawa Jazz Festival kicked-off, the first song of nearly a 2 hour set by Kamasi Washington and his dynamically led band had finished their first number. Kamasi thanked and welcomed the crowd to tremendous applause, and began his evening long pattern of personal storytelling. Of how he met each of his band mates, how they affected him musically, and why they are here.
He introduced a song that he wrote about his grandmother while also inviting his father, who "taught me everything I know" to the stage. Kamasi mentioned that his mother always said "It's not what you have in life, it's what you do in life that's important", and he followed that theme throughout the evening. What he did up until this point was to get real good at what he does. At playing the sax, at composing music, at producing albums, and on display this night, band leading while directing focus on some of the works of the masters in his ensemble.
Kamasi told the story of meeting trombonist Ryan Porter back when he was in school. This story described how he heard the most emotional playing he'd ever heard in the hallway. Expecting to find an old 87 year old man who lost 3 wives and 7 grandchildren, he was surprised when he came upon Ryan. He asked "what happened to you man? where's all this coming from?". Ryan responded "This morning, I wanted to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Turned out, I was out of bread."
That's when Kamasi knew he had to play with this guy. Then he introduced a song composed by Porter and tore the place up.
Miles Mosely, who balanced against his upright bass which also sported his Twitter callsign @milesmosely on the massive pick guard, was introduced as the greatest bassist on the planet, "though I've heard there is someone on Mars". Miles was then featured for one of his own songs on an upcoming album "Abraham" (due in September). He started working the bass with a bow, then added some wah pedal (that's when it was evident that he had a string of electronics to play with as well), added a bit of distortion, began shredding a bit, started singing while grooving as the band joined in to complete this powerful fucking jam. It was incredibly dynamic. It started so delicate and quiet and just exploded into fireworks.
The drummers were also featured prominently, and both were stars in the stories of Kamasi. Tony Austin as the 4 year-older super cool guy, when Kamasi was only 8 (they watched ninja turtles together), and Ronald Bruner Jr. was the baby prodigy drummer when Kamasi thought his own three-year-old self was the supreme shit on drums only to be surpassed by a baby at a birthday party. "Hey, let the baby play your drums." "Ah shit! no man. He's still in diapers. What if something happens?"
Both were given some time together on stage to "talk. as drummers do". Both tossed out impressive solos after passing beats back and forth. The dual drummer setup has been done many times, but these two literally made stereophonic sounds they way they countered each other. Imagine hearing one snare in your left ear, and one in your right, back and forth at differing rhythms…that's what they sounded like, except they had around 30 pieces (give or take) of drums between the two.
Kamasi's father, Rickey Washington, performed between Kamasi and vocalist Patrice Quinn for most of the evening. When he wasn't playing flute or soprano sax, he was grooving and grinning to the music. Patrice spent most of the evening dancing and sometimes providing some scatted unison over some of the horn lines. She was reminiscent of a dancing Donna (grateful dead) however, this lady can SING. She performed the song written about Kamasis grandmother, and at least 2 others. One other was called "the rhythm changes", and it actually may have a few times throughout that song and the evening in very complicated ways.
Brandon Coleman really filled in the grooves and many times sounded like a funky guitarist on that Nord keyboard or Rhodes maybe. Speaking of guitar, yes, he also picked up one of those keyboards you hold like a guitar. The left hand seemed to be controlling pitch and voicing but it looked alot like he was fingering notes on a guitar. Not sure how that thing works but it was really fascinating.
Kamasi Washington's mashup of funk, soul, R&B all rooted with master-level jazz was a super treat. It didn't feel anything like any other night of standard jazz. It was pure spectacle, incomprehensible talent that made everything seem effortless. It was powerful musically and emotionally. If there were no seats, the crowd would have been bouncing all night. Chair dancing came naturally.
What he did in life tonight was open the audience members attention up to his ensemble, his history, his family, and where his music comes from, where it's going, and where they are all going. It seems clear that this was a special night and the intimate vibe of a smallish venue may be difficult to experience again as this band leader continues to impress everyone that is fortunate enough to experience him perform.