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Kamasi Washington at the Taft


Occasionally a jazz musician comes along who draws a crowd in both the jazz community as well as the music world in general. Esperanza Spaulding would be an example of such an artist, connecting with different audiences while retaining her jazz creds.

Similar words could be used to describe Kamasi Washington, whose work with such non-jazz names as Kendrick Lamar and String Cheese Incident—that and the blend of musical styles in his music—has added much to his visibility.

On Tuesday Kamasi played at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati, and while the show didn’t sell out, there was an exceptionally good crowd for jazz as well as a buzz in the air, with rock concert-type yells during some of Kamasi’s fiery tenor sax solos.

The record that put Kamasi over was 2015’s The Epic, a release that, if you bought it on vinyl (and I noticed many concertgoers walking around with newly-purchased copies), was three LPs. No one will ever accuse The Epic of being false advertising, as it’s very big picture, hearkening back to the days when jazz musicians didn’t just record albums, they delved into current affairs and the cosmos. I’m thinking of the 60s and early 70s here especially, when much of the jazz you heard was often quite frenetic and also had a spiritual element. That music certainly resounded with me—two of the first jazz records I bought were Pharoah Sanders’ Village of the Pharoahs and John Coltrane’s The Other Village Vanguard Tapes.

You hear something similar on The Epic, along with a debt to Coltrane and other artists from that period, as well as a focus on civil rights that especially echoes the 60s and early 70s. That’s all well and good, but those are big shoes to fill, and there was never any guarantee that, all these years later, anyone would be able to step up and do justice to that heritage.

I’m a fan of Kamasi Washington and some of his bandmates (I think Cameron Graves’ Planetary Prince, which features Kamasi extensively, was one of the best jazz albums this year), but I had never seen him before Tuesday night. That concert confirmed my belief that he’s a worthy successor to the earlier jazz artists, both as a soloist and as a bandleader who has a penchant for choosing top-notch musicians.

And there’s something else that convinced me he’s a heavy hitter: his compositions. Yes, as a saxophonist he’s technically impressive, and he definitely emotes, but some musicians with the same qualities write songs that sound slapped together for the purpose of launching extended solos. Not so with Kamasi. A few of the highlights from last night: “Leroy and Lanisha,” a clever piece of songwriting inspired by the music from the old Charlie Brown specials; “Truth,” which presents five very different melodies at once—sounds interesting in theory, right?, but it also was very pleasant on the ears; and the closer, “The Rhythm Changes,” a gorgeous song with a nice groove to it. His ability to write music that does justice to his overall vision is central to his relevancy. Far from a flash in the pan, Kamasi Washington is that rare musician who can help battle the popularity-held notion that jazz exists in order to massage your cerebral cortex.