Last Thursday, hundreds of students from the University of California, Santa Barbara and community members alike gathered in Campbell Hall for a warm and cozy evening with jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington and his band, The Next Step. The concert, hosted by UCSB Arts & Lectures, was arguably one of the most anticipated events of the year, and with good reason.
The 35-year old has worked closely with a plethora of artists, including Snoop Dogg, Lauryn Hill, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat. Most notably, he was one of the many artists to collaborate on Kendrick Lamar’s critically-acclaimed 2015 release To Pimp a Butterfly, for which he played tenor saxophone in addition to arranging orchestral parts. His talents have not gone unnoticed in these past endeavors, but it was his debut album, The Epic, an aptly-named three-disc release, that shifted a much-deserved spotlight onto Washington, cementing him as one of modern jazz’s most notable figures.
Washington is frequently mentioned within the same breath as John Coltrane, and while his playing certainly evokes that of past eras, it does so with a staunch dedication to individuality and an innovative spirit. His style is rooted in tradition but not hindered by it.
Washington was greeted with thunderous applause as he and The Next Step took their places onstage. At first glance, Washington is a rather imposing figure. Donning ornate African robes and jewelry and towering over all of his counterparts, he commands full attention, a fact which extends to his musical presence as well. Everything about the man speaks volumes. His choice of expression, taken collectively, is a powerful celebration of his identity. His music, too, doesn’t shy away from confrontation — it’s soulful, political, and relevant to the experiences of Black America.
After just a few words of acknowledgement to the audience, Washington and The Next Step kicked off the show with a bang. Despite the magnetic force field that seems to revolve around Washington, the bandleader took to the sidelines for most of the opening song, and handed the stage to his keyboardist, Brandon Coleman, lovingly referred to as Dr. Sound.
Led by the keyboard virtuoso, all the musicians onstage broke out into a frenzy as they frantically tried to keep up with the formidable force that is Coleman. His musicianship cannot be overstated, and witnessing the kind of energy he displayed, which is only partially captured by studio recording, was nothing short of jaw-dropping. The only thought left in my mind after his solo on “The Magnificent 7” was “How the fuck did he do that?”
Washington’s genre-bending playing has bridged the gap between what many (mistakenly) consider a dying art and modernity, and almost single-handedly introduced a resurgence of interest in his craft among millennials. His appeal extends far beyond just the jazz world, but this isn’t to say that his music is “watered down” in any sense of the word.
Before breaking into a powerful rendition of the neo-psychedelic cosmic jazz tune “Change of the Guard,” Washington introduced his trombone player, Ryan Porter, whom he described as “the most soulful musician [he’s] ever known.” His face practically glowed with warmth as he recounted the humorous tale of how the two musicians met in a hallway, after Washington heard Porter’s playing in passing and went to investigate who it was. Judging by Porter’s sound, Washington expected to find an old man, but instead found Porter, who was no older than him. They’ve been “soul brothers” ever since, and their chemistry is exceedingly obvious in their playing.
The two stood side by side, as Porter’s rich, buttery sound complimented Washington’s smooth, subtle dynamics. Porter played with a kind of magnitude that made it difficult to believe his sound was being produced by one person. Together, the two played around with rhythms and tempo on “Change of the Guard,” never once stepping on each other. The two are clearly familiar with each other’s style, managing to remain harmonious throughout the night.
During what was perhaps the most touching moment of the show, Washington introduced his father Rickey Washington, a quiet, unassuming man with had no shortage of soul. The elder Washington joined his son on stage for a beautiful, evocative performance of “Henrietta Our Hero,” a song written by Kamasi in honor of his grandmother, who was the “pillar” of his family.
Rickey Washington’s delicate flute added an extra element of emotion to the heartfelt homage. The sound was grounded by vocalist Nia Andrews, who was performing with the band for the very first time. Whereas the flute whistled with quiet intensity, Andrews brought the tune back to a soft shimmer with her silky smooth vocals.
Kamasi Washington may have been the main attraction of the night, but he by no means overshadowed his accompanying musicians. As a bandleader, Washington’s focus is not solely on his own instrument, but on the intertwining of each note of each instrument. He takes a very holistic approach to composition, and seems to want the listener to fully appreciate intricacies of each instrument. He fully explores their unique characteristics, rather than including them as background embellishment or an afterthought.
With this in mind, his own performance is versatile and adaptable to the overall sound. At times, his sax playing is quiet and understated, and on other occasions, something more akin to a battlehorn.
At one point, Washington and most of The Next Step briefly exited the stage, leaving only his two drummers, OG Tony and Robert Miller, who were positioned across the stage from each other. The two engaged in a conversation of sorts, each of them displaying their own unique affinities for rhythm through back-and-forth exchange, before the band rejoined them on stage for one final song.
Washington ended with “The Rhythm Changes,” a crowd favorite. Washington started off with spacey sax, slowly building intensity, before erupting into the orchestral chorus with full force. He seemed to savor every minute of it, exploring the song to its fullest potential to extract all that he possibly could before bringing it back to a recognizable melody. The concert ended on a high note, with Washington’s sax and Andrews’ vocals soaring freely over the spacey atmosphere in a musical panoply of cosmic proportions.
If you were to ask him a question as simple as why he needed two drum kits, Washington indicated he would respond with “‘Cause I like rhythm,” a sentiment which seems to sum up his approach to music. Washington seems to draw inspiration to himself like a magnet, always finding hidden opportunities for creative exploration. Though he’s already achieved considerable success, Washington keeps pushing the sometimes rigid boundaries of jazz, constantly challenging himself even as he continues to challenge the definition of what jazz can be.