Since his ascendance as a crossover success following the release of last year’s sprawling The Epic, Kamasi Washington has been classified in several ways: jazz icon, West Coast wunderkind, even, in one dubious headline, the “High Priest of Sax.” But is he a revolutionary? A May 8 concert, part of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival New York, posed the question, as Washington shared a stage in the round on a triple bill with two jazz totems deserving of that epithet: the Sun Ra Arkestra, under the direction of Marshall Allen, and Pharoah Sanders. As 800 fans, many if not most of them under 30, clambered into a cavernous soundstage constructed in a warehouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, replete with smoke machines, live psychedelic visualizations, floating cosmic light orbs and white obelisks skirting the perimeter, Washington’s cult celebrity status seemed indisputable. Drawing a sold-out crowd to a three-hour warehouse jazz show on a Sunday night is no small feat, but the 35-year-old’s capacity or intent to reach the revolutionary status of his precursors remains debatable.
The concert, “Where Spaceways Meet: A Night of Spiritual Jazz,” provided occasion to contemplate generational shifts: whether Washington will be a blip or a lasting presence; the notions of progress and paradigm in jazz, especially the legacy of late-’60s black radicalism; and how Washington shapes that lineage. In contrast to the pyrotechnics of the concert’s production (or the preponderance of Red Bull), the circular stage, the minimalist aesthetic and the galactic, crypto-Egyptian iconography evoked something akin to the romantic Marxism of late-’60s Black Power, recalling a future that has still not yet arrived.