Tonight saxophonist Kamasi Washington changed Ottawa, just a little bit.
First of all, it was the soft opening of the Ottawa Jazz Festival and the first ever concert at the NAC (after 36 years!) The concert was opened by strong words by the festival’s executive producer Catherine O’Grady and Director Petr Cancura, and then Kamasi’s band got down to business almost immediately. The band composed of two drummers, an upright bassist, a singer, trombonist, keys player, Kamasi on saxophone and occasionally his own father on flute and soprano saxophone.
The concert started off with a flurry, showcasing some of Kamasi’s most obscure stuff. As my wife put it, it was a definite “sensory overload” as the band ripped into two tunes of heavy, atonal saxophone jazz – we’re talking late Coltrane to Ornette Coleman to Sun Ra. After waiting in line for 2 hours, it took a couple minutes for the crowd to adjust and realize that they were in for a real performance.
Now, to backpedal, Kamasi released an award-winning album called “The Epic” last year, aiming to rescue jazz, only one year after performing on Kendrick Lamar’s game-changer “To Pimp a Butterfly.” Through these works, Kamasi has become known for combining elements of serious jazz with serious hip-hop, and this concert was no exception. In each song, his horn parts had the repetitive, sampled nature of hip-hop, but the jazz improvisation took each section to wild new territory. Truth be told, I’ve never seen more pedalboards in my life. Almost every musician used a variety of effects to take their instrument to the next level, from huge volume pedal swells on the upright bass to wah’d out organ, to a low-octave effect on a lengthy trombone solo- almost no musician stuck to a traditional sound.
It makes sense in a way – Kamasi was keen to keep reminding the audience that the band members had all known one another since childhood. When introducing each band member, he shared stories of watching the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and being the best 3-year-old drummer in the neighbourhood. Because they had been playing together for many years, there was a sense of freedom in the group. You could tell right off the bat that they felt free to experiment and try things that they hadn’t necessarily tried in the last performance. In terms of a jazz concert, it felt as raw and new as it did professional. I saw missed cues, heard off notes- and it didn’t matter. Everyone was just having a great time.
Once they had set the mood, Kamasi took the opportunity to feature each individual member of the band, like any jazz performance worth its salt,. “When we recorded ‘The Epic,’ we also recorded 8 other albums, one for each member of the band,” he announced, laughing. It was hard to tell if he was joking or not, but regardless, he took the opportunity to allow his upright bassist Miles Mosley to showcase an original tune from his own repetoire. Miles started off with a solo intro, showcasing classical bowing to wahed out James Brown lines all in the same 3 minute stretch. His ability to bow insanely fast on the high strings while plucking long notes on the low strings was incredible, but even more impressively, he added effect pedals throughout to alter each sound. Once he had set the mood, the band launched into his song “Abraham,” which was sort of a Blind Boys of Alabama-style gospel track mixed with a bit of Tower of Power.
The show also featured two straightforward and to-the-point vocal performances by singer Patrice Quinn, a lengthy flute solo by Kamasi’s own father Ricky Washington, and a drum showdown between the two drummers Ronald Bruner and Tony Austin. The two drummers were one another’s perfect foils. Austin played tight and to-the-point grooves while Bruner focused on intricate rhythms and wild rock fills.
Beyond the drum and bass performance, singer Patrice Quinn was the most visually stunning of the night. While her vocal performances were great, her stage presence and innocent demeanour were enchanting. She was always dancing; whether it was playing the air bass, humming the horn melodies to herself in the back or doing the twist.
All in all, it was a really great performance. The band managed to maintain a raw and free sound where anything was allowed, while still remaining professional and tight as a tiger. The crowd of 900 must have agreed, too, considering two standing ovations before the night was done. The band seemed delightfully surprised by the support from our quiet city, with the trombonist excitedly filming and tweeting our response from the stage. I hope that this means Ottawa is prepared to continue bringing high caliber jazz acts into the city, and maybe even that the NAC begins to take on more experimental artists in the future.