Tonight, the patrons of the annual Ottawa Jazz Festival gathered in the Theatre of the National Arts Centre for the much-anticipated opener, Kamasi Washington. The tenor saxophone player who exploded onto the jazz scene last year with the release of his triple-disc studio debut, The Epic, was the only artist on the bill for night one. If you stayed home tonight thinking “oh it’s just one act, I won’t miss much,” I wouldn’t read this review any further. Kamasi Washington put on arguably the best jazz show I have ever seen, and I’m having a hard time picking a single other artist on the lineup that will be able to match him.
The Epic is an opus that displays tremendous diversity and musicianship. At times it can have a humongous sound that may seem to stem from the choirs or orchestra, but if this concert demonstrated anything it’s that Kamasi Washington is epic because of the unmatched togetherness of his core band. The 8 artists on stage, which included Kamasi’s tenor sax, a trombone, upright bass, a vocalist, keyboardist, soprano sax/flute, and two drummers on full kits, pushed the limits of their music and their audience while never faltering or losing focus. Every member of the band listened to each note, locking in to their collective improvisation in a way that supported and enhanced all the musicians on stage. Extreme tension and blissful release, soulful ballads and grooves that just make you want to dance, solos that will melt your brain…this concert had it all and more.
What can I say about the musicians as individuals? I can’t really sum up concisely what this band conjured in front of my eyes. They all were given moments to come to the forefront, and each one displayed tremendous passion and creativity. They are indisputable virtuosos, but they never let the urge to flaunt their talent get in the way of making meaningful music (except maybe during the drum solos, but I can’t say I’m fond of drum solos. For the record, the drummers were incredible and complemented each other perfectly). After this performance, I feel the need to look up and explore every member of the band in their individual musical pursuits, without exception.
In the end Kamasi Washington was not only an effective bandleader, but the musical star of the show. This man seems to channel the greatest of saxophone greats and bend the lessons of their playing into something entirely new. His playing is constantly evolving and morphing to carry the audience to faraway places, leaving us speechless in our euphoria. He is pushing jazz to new dimensions, and he has the perfect supporting cast to accomplish the task.
Go see Kamasi Washington whenever you can. Buy his album and let him and his band transport you. Artists like this don’t come around every day.