Smile Politely

A review of the stunning Kamasi Washington at Canopy Club

The Canopy Club is host to many different types of touring artists and their audiences, but it’s a rare occasion that you will find a jazz show on that hallowed stage. On Tuesday night, the brightest star in jazz, saxophone player Kamasi Washington, dazzled the Canopy Club crowd with his loaded 9-piece band, The Next Step, which includes two drummers, two keyboardists, two saxophone players, a trombone player, and a singer. Washington rose to prominence as the man behind the jazzy sound to Kendrick Lamar’s classic album To Pimp a Butterfly.

Once the preeminent musical form in popular culture, jazz has been something of a niche interest for the past few decades, with an intricate yet insular culture. Legends like Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis are household names, but for decades even the most lauded jazz musicians have garnered little attention outside the jazz world. Then Kamasi Washington burst onto the scene and his name has been spreading more and more into the mainstream ever since. The attention he garnered from his Kendrick Lamar collaboration helped shine a light on his own 2015 debut album, The Epic, which earned critical acclaim, late night television appearances, and a spot on the line up of many major music festivals next to the biggest names in popular music. This September he released his follow up EP, Harmony of Difference, and the tour behind the EP is what brought him to Urbana this week. The setlist on Tuesday night featured songs from both of his releases as well as cover renditions of classic jazz songs, as is all but customary in jazz.

The improvisational nature of jazz and Washington’s performances mean that every show’s unique quality is very dependent on the atmosphere of that particular show, and the crowd at Canopy Club did not fail to amplify the energy. In the big room, the pit was fully packed and spilling up the sides towards the back of the room. Behind the crowded pit there was a more open space in the center of the room where there were tables and chairs set up, lending a lounge atmosphere that was very fitting for the show. The crowd was very diverse, drawing both young and older. The whole lot of them were intently focused on the stage throughout the entire show, and they hooted and hollered and gave roaring applause at the end of each song and after the climactic solos that marked the high points of the ebb and flow of the evening’s energy.

For most of the set their style could probably be more precisely described as jazz fusion, a highly complex and typically energetic form of jazz that takes ideas and sounds from rock, funk, R&B, pop, and other genres. The band incorporated futuristic sounding synthesizers, audio effects, and many songs that feature a highly syncopated backbeat, the type of rhythm crowds can easily clap along to, rather than the swing beat which is more typical of jazz music. One of the keyboard players was equipped with an analog synthesizer, analog keytar, and a laptop full of the best modern keyboard plug-ins operated by his full size 88-key keyboard. Halfway through the set, in the middle of a song, he surprised the crowd by singing with a full and silky voice. He slowly began to pepper in an auto-tune like vocoder to effect his voice, almost imperceptibly at first but slowly escalating it until it reached a soulful wailing solo in a robotic voice laced with memories of Roger Troutman and Daft Punk. He went directly from his vocoder solo to a keytar solo using a keyboard patch that sounded strikingly similar to a real guitar, particularly because of his expert use of pitch bend and vibrato and the guitar-like riffs and licks he selected.

Kamasi served as a dutiful band leader and charismatic host, announcing the soloists at the beginning and ending of most solos. He dished the solos out unselfishly to his band, and in his own solos tended to have a slightly more breezy and subdued style than his cohorts. In between songs he connected with the crowd by giving interesting anecdotes and background information about the songs and band members. A few songs into the night he brought out the 9th member of the band, “The man who taught me everything”, his own father and fellow saxophonist Rickey Washington. Rickey’s solo on the soprano sax was a highlight of the night, starting out with a Paul-Desmond-esque light and liquid tone and escalating with the band into a howling screeching apex. While announcing a song written by the trombonist, he gave him a new nickname, “Hot sauce”, and said it’s because you can put him on anything and it makes it better. During that song, as “Hot Sauce” built up his powerful solo, the stage lights shined red on the bell of his trombone and made it glow, and it almost seemed as if his blistering solo was heating up the brass to molten temperatures.

The band didn’t get into material off the newest EP until 52 minutes into the set. Kamasi jumped into “Humility” with little explanation but made a promise to talk about it after the song is over while announcing the next song, “Truth”, the final piece on the EP. In the interval between the two songs he explained the idea behind his recent EP, which introduces 5 different melodies in the first 5 songs and in the final piece all five melodies are played over the top of each other, all in perfect harmony. It is a metaphor for the beauty of diversity, the beauty of Harmony in Difference. The passion and purpose of his message was felt across the room when he pronounced, “Diversity is not something to be tolerated. It is something to be celebrated.” At the end of the song the entire band dropped out, leaving Kamasi alone playing a soft and soothing outro with an echoing delay effect giving the feeling that his solo and his message were carrying out into a vast space. The band finished the night with an upbeat number, and when it was all over there were chants for an encore. Kamasi and his band had said all they needed to say. No encore was played and the chanting crowd was left wanting more. They will have to follow him on tour or wait for his next LP, scheduled for release in 2018.

All photos courtesy of Logan Green.

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