Kamasi Washington at The National Concert Hall, 29 June 2017
Tonight the National Concert Hall foyer is packed with people, spilling out onto the steps at the front. On a symphony orchestra night – perhaps the most regular occurrence at the hall – everyone would be inside, seated, ready for the concert to begin bang on eight o’clock. The hall is a well-oiled machine on such nights, its smartly uniformed staff efficiently marshalled by the front of house manager. Tonight, all that attention to detail and refining of the concert experience means that this new audience can be catered for with ease and grace.
There is a little leeway given tonight and, with just a couple of extra announcements for seats to be taken, the lights dim at about twenty past eight and Kamasi Washington and his band take the stage.
“We’re not gonna make you wait anymore…you ready to go on a journey together?”
Behind him, the two drummers start into a marching beat. The melody layered on top of their insistent rhythms traces an open fifth chord, like the famous Fanfare For The Common Man. Wherever this journey is going to take us, we are starting on a solid foundation. (It is also a loud foundation, and some squealing feedback in the first minutes is thankfully eliminated by the sound engineers. I happily have my moulded attenuating earplugs with me. If you’re a regular concert-goer, they can really take the edge off the discomfort of loudly amplified sound.)
The album that has brought Kamasi Washington into wider recognition is 2015’s ‘The Epic’. The tale of its genesis is refreshingly organic in an era where a lot of people are suspicious of sonic manipulation. As much as we like lone hero artists, there’s something compelling about a group dynamic.
Washington’s group is a joy to watch. Singer Patrice Quinn – shielded from the drum kit behind her by perspex screens – comes on stage with her arms raised, and is never inert. She mimes air guitar as she vibes to Washington’s solo in Change Of The Guard, and she enjoys having people to interact with on the seats that overlook the concert hall stage. We are treated to the gorgeous, reverent song Henrietta Our Hero, and Rickey Washington – Kamasi’s father – joins the band at this point on soprano sax and flute. The last number they do is The Rhythm Changes: “Our minds, our bodies, our feelings / They change, they alter, they leave us / Somehow, no matter what happens / I’m here”. As the band begin the song, Quinn is huddled in a prayerful crouch, hands open to receive. It’s a gesture of active humility that befits the song’s message.
The pieces we hear tonight (as on the record) are long, the solos protracted, there’s no hurry, however there is no discernible lagging in energy. Our attention is drawn naturally from one player to another, and Washington introduces each member a number of times throughout the evening, peppering in anecdotes and nicknames. When one player takes a solo, the others turn to focus on them.
The two drummers, Jonathan Pinson and Robert Miller, are radiant throughout the gig. Their interactions give further dimension to the group’s sound, blurring the edges of the beat. It’s not the same as having a percussionist, which would be a separate layer of sounds. Towards the end of the evening, Pinson and Miller play together. Not in an adversarial ‘drum battle’, but in the conjoined spirit in which they’ve been underpinning the whole performance. The energetic sound they create together is thrilling and they throw their heads back in laughter as their duo comes to a close.
After this, Washington says he’s “doing math…making sure we don’t go over”. “Go over!” comes the response from the audience. They launch into The Magnificent 7, all four melody instrument players powerfully in unison after the initial riff. Trombonist Ryan Porter takes a solo on this one, using an octave pedal. The judicious use of pedals and effects augments the group’s sound. Washington begins a few of the tunes playing solo through a delay effect, for instance on the tune Leroy and Lanisha, the “theme song (he wrote) just in case they ever do a Charlie Brown Goes To Inglewood episode”. Bassist Joshua Crumbly takes a solo here, the drummers moving to hand percussion. A little while into it, he’s joined by keyboardist Brandon Coleman on clavinet. There’s a tasty influence of gospel and funk in Coleman’s playing and he gets some great sounds from his Nord Stage keyboard – arpeggiated synths and a lovely woozy piano sound on The Rhythm Changes. He also does some cool Headhunters-y vocoder on his own tune, Giant Feelings.
Kamasi Washington is making music on a grand scale, graciously and generously. Tonight’s concert – the bandleader’s first one in Ireland – was two hours long and there were seven items on the setlist.
Change Of The Guard
Henrietta Our Hero
Leroy And Lanisha
The Magnificent 7
The Rhythm Changes
(encore with duos: keys & Miller, bass & trombone, soprano sax & Pinson, Quinn & Washington)