Photo by MITCH IKEDA
Jazz's new guard on display
Everyone has their favorite bands that drive them to a attend a music festival. For many at this year’s anniversary edition of Fuji Rock it may have been the perpetually popular Red Hot Chili Peppers, or maybe it was Saturday headliner Beck, perhaps it was the global phenomenon that is idol-metal group, Babymetal. For fans of jazz music, there was always going to be one headliner at Fuji Rock this year, Kamasi Washington and his band of west coast jazz wizards.
Washington’s 2015 album, The Epic, is perfectly titled and every bit as epic as a debut triple album could be. Would their live show reach the album’s greatness? Was I was a fool to even question this? Some five minutes into their ninty minute set I was more than assured Sunday evening’s Field of Heaven headliners would reach epic levels and then some.
Washington’s live band includes two drummers, two piano players, a militant looking master bassist and even his own father on flute and sax. It’s not a standard jazz setup, but this isn’t your standard jazz band.
Naturally, Washington and the crew played tracks off of 2015’s The Epic. However, he also noted that while recording The Epic, he and the band recorded around 8 other albums for each individual member. So we also got to hear gems and unreleased tunes throughout the set such as the energetic and powerful “Abraham” led by bassist, Miles Mosley.
From The Epic, we got to hear plenty of extended versions of songs like “Change of the Guard”, “The Next Step” and “Henrietta Our Hero”. This last track in particular was extremely emotional, with Washington standing beside his father and giving a loving speech about his grandmother, Henrietta. Patrice Quinn on vocal then transformed that shared emotion into warm, dreamy verses.
Other highlights of the set included a wild drum conversation between the band’s two drummers, Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner, Jr. The pair played off each other, were given time to solo, to show off and amaze a stunned audience below. The two piano players were also a revelation, with Cameron Graves on a traditional baby grand, while Brandon Coleman rocked the synthesizer and keytar. Graves solos were virtuosic and dazzling. Coleman meanwhile, whom Washington had nicknamed ‘Brandon Boogie’, kept the crowd moving and shaking with the funky, raw power of the keytar. This rarely used keyed guitar allowed Coleman to solo like a guitarist and also strut around the stage like a man possessed by the God of Funk.
This is Kamasi Washington’s band, but it’s a shared live experience. Washington is about promoting the movement, not himself. He introduced each member as being some of the world’s best and he just might be right. When it was time for Kamasi to take center stage he always came correct. His playing style has been compared to some of the greats for good reason. He plays with a confidence and a flair containing that west coast California sound that gave birth to Washington and his epicness.
Near the end of the set I knew Chili Peppers were going on concurrently on the main stage but I never once checked the time or even considered leaving. The bulk of the crowd didn’t either, as I knew and they knew, we were witnessing something special. A display of musical magic that would make a bass solo from Flea look like child’s play.
Washington and crew played a rare festival encore which was plenty funky and danceable. Even still, the bewildered crowd below didn’t want to leave when it was finished. Washington’s mesmerizing set to close down the Field of Heaven is what makes Fuji Rock a special festival and the reason I can’t miss it each year.