Kamasi Washington (centre) and band. Photograph: Emile Holba
Kamasi Washington (centre) and band. Photograph: Emile Holba

Is jazz the single most esoteric musical form? If so, then no one told Kamasi Washington. The American bandleader, composer and saxophonist this year released not only the best jazz record, but one of the best mainstream albums of the year: the three hour, three-part tour de force The Epic.

“Don’t be afraid to stand up,” said Washington to the as-yet seated audience at the Barbican last month, the band’s first gig in London, dubbed the “hottest ticket in town” by announcer Gilles Peterson.

Arriving on stage with two drummers and three different types of keyboard (including oft-maligned ‘keytar’) it was clear that whatever we were in for, it was indeed going to be epic.

Album opener ‘Changing of the Guard’ started proceedings, saxophone and trombone pumping out a rousing jazz fanfare. The two brass instruments combined magnificently throughout, their jarring pomp undercut by solos of frightening virtuosity.

Electric double-bassist Miles Mosley seemed to being mauling his own instrument with his bear-like hands, making it sound all mangled and distorted, while twin drummers Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner provided a master class with a dueling drummers solo number – each proving with their funk and hip-hop rhythms, their subtlety and all-round ability, that two full drum kits on stage is no extravagance.

Each drummer was introduced with familial tenderness by their bandleader, who explained how important both of them have been to his life and career. Another touching moment came when Washington introduced his own father, Rickey Washington, the man who taught him everything he knows, to accompany the band on flute.

They subsequently launched into ‘Henrietta Our Hero’, about Kamasi’s grandmother and her “battles alone with love”, with Washington Junior’s sax veering from a nostalgic and laconic groove into outbursts of wild musical abandon.

It was a thrilling spectacle, and showcased the singing talents of Patrice Quinn, who coped admirably as a lone vocalist, given that the album opts for a 20-piece choir.

Perhaps to the coldest English heart there was too much sentiment on display, and a laid back version of Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ after such a frenetic opening did seem the wrong choice.

But as the soulful groove of the showstopping final number ‘The Rhythm Changes’ kicked in, the audience was on its feet to salute a special performance, and a band that could one day be considered one of the greats.

Kamasi Washington played at the Barbican on 14 November.
kamasiwashington.com

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