Whilst Kamasi Washington’s debut album, The Epic, had listeners swooning with its grandiosity and intelligent musicianship, its 2018 follow-up, Heaven & Earth, is a much fiercer affair. Across the three hour running time, Washington uses the genre’s weightless, unstructured form to provide an environment in which to explore the tumultuous and unpredictable nature of our times. Whilst the enjoyment of live experiences often relies on familiarity with a band’s back-catalogue, Washington instead thrills with the element of surprise, using the improvisational knowhow of “the best jazz musicians in the world” to back him up (including Thundercat and his Dad).
It’s true that Jazz has caught the gaze of the mainstream in recent years but, rest assure, there is no attempt at ‘dumbing down’ the genre to please a broader audience. If he wanted to, Kamasi Washington could have easily made the set into a mass medley of his back catalogue (which currently clocks in at 6.5 hours in total, taking his two studio albums and EPs into consideration.) But that’s not how the songs were designed. Instead seven songs are selected and presented in their full glory tonight, just as they were meant to be.
The frontman strides out on stage, warmly introducing his band with a cool, casual confidence. After a few isolated toots on the sax, the full force of “Show Us The Way” wades in with its storm of brass, clattering keys and frantic drum patterns. In the swampy grooves of “Street Fighter Mas”, double bassist Miles Mosley is thrown the spotlight to improvise - he begins by spidering down the neck of his instrument before drawing his bow to voice a bone-rattling boom.
“The Rhythm Changes” and “Truth” form a captivating centrepiece for the show loaded with the most memorable melodies of the set. The presence of Patrice Quinn’s dramatic vocal allows the former to soar to epic heights, whilst the latter is preceded with a timely message from Washington. “We don’t have to believe the same thing to love each other. Diversity shouldn’t be tolerated, it should be celebrated.” This train of thought is particularly pertinent as his diverse audience stand before him side-by-side.
The kinship between the musicians on stage paint a charming picture. Kamasi has known both Thundercat and his older brother Ronald Bruner Jr, who’s on drums tonight, since childhood; at several moments he takes a minute to reminisce. “I remember us playing in my Dad’s garage until 4am,” he says before pointing at Bruner Jr. “He’s the reason for me picking up the saxophone. I used to be a drummer and saw this guy drum then I was like ‘yep, I play saxophone’.” He leaves Bruner Jr and second drummer Tony Austin to have a 10 minute drum-off midway through the set. They start together in sequence before taking it in turns to unleash their command of the sticks - it’s a truly astonishing thing to witness.
“Fists of Fury” closes the show with its stirring stabs of brass set to a rolling drum beat which ends in an expanding mash of howling vocals and choirs atop an enthralling unsettled instrumental. Here, Thundercat and his brother are given a little time to display their undeniable musical connection with a rapid, machine-gun style medley.