Kamasi Washington’s Music Transcends The Barriers

Washington Opens For Florence at The Bowl

Preview By DAN MACINTOSH, Feature Photo by ALYSON CAMUS

Kamasi Washington is slated to open for Florence and the Machine Sept. 25 and Sept. 26 at the Hollywood Bowl. Florence Welch’s English indie rock band has been described at various times as baroque pop, art pop and neo soul.

In contrast, though, Kamasi Washington plays jazz. Not the watered-down variety, like the instrumental pop Kenny G lays down (seemingly in his sleep), but the real, mostly acoustic variety. The good stuff. On the surface, then, this pairing of these two acts sure appears to be a case of forcing two strange bedfellows together.

Before you cry, ‘Strange bedfellow-ness!,’ however, please take a closer look at Washington’s unique discography. Washington has played with great jazz musicians, including Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, it’s true. He’s also lent his chops to soul/R and B artists, both old (Chaka Khan) and new (Lauryn Hill). It is Washington’s association with hip-hop giant Kendrick Lamar, however, that’s brought the saxophonist the most mainstream attention. He’s one of the reasons why Lamar was able to incorporate jazz instrumentation so successfully on his To Pimp a Butterfly album.

Kamasi Washington looks admiringly at his father, Rickey Washington at last Arroyo Seco Festival - Photo © 2018 Donna Balancia
Kamasi Washington looks admiringly at his father, Rickey Washington at last Arroyo Seco Festival – Photo © 2018 Donna Balancia

Washington also performed at the 2016 Coachella Valley Music Festival, a gathering known for presenting nearly every musical style under the sun except, perhaps, jazz. He fit in (as a jazzman) the same way Sturgill Simpson (a country artist) fit.  They’re both in and out of their respective boxes at the same time. When you listen to a composition like “Can You Hear Him,” off Washington’s new Earth recording, jazz icon John Coltrane comes immediately to mind. Coltrane’s name pops into the brain so quickly and naturally, not because both men are known for playing jazz saxophone, but because Washington carries on a lot of the spirit of Coltrane’s music.

It was the emotional/spiritual quest running through Coltrane’s best albums, especially A Love Supreme, that also set him apart from the pack and on a higher plane during his ‘60s prime. Similarly, Washington is not just playing for us; he’s also speaking to us. You can pick up on an urgency in the way he plays. A special passion. Yes, his tone is spot-on, and he composes well, but music is also his chosen language. Musical notes say what words can never express and transcend any all language barriers.

When Washington pairs with Florence and the Machine, he intends to have a deep and meaningful conversation with everyone in the audience. Calling a Washington performance on the level of something spiritual may come off as hyperbole. It’s not, nor is it meant to be. This man’s an exceptional musician, and one that creates a remarkable mood whenever he plays. Like Sly Stone, he wants to take you higher, so this is a show not to miss.