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.
As the Arkestra began its set with “Interplanetary Music,” some ostensibly unintended feedback in the bass register began to crescendo. Unfazed, drummer Craig Holiday Haynes (son of Roy Haynes) maintained a furious pace on the ride cymbal while the Arkestra continued the gang vocals unabated. As the piece began to unravel, the bandstand appeared on the verge of spontaneous combustion, reminiscent of the opening cabaret sequence in Space Is the Place, Ra’s 1974 science-fiction film. But with the Arkestra, entropy seems to double back on itself just when the band seems poised to go off the rails. The densely orchestrated rubato introduction to the ballad “The Lion of the Heavens” was punctuated by 91-year-old Marshall Allen’s caterwauling alto saxophone and emphatic gesticulations, which seemed to conjure dissonant chords into being as if tuned in to gravitational waves light years away. Allen’s otherworldly lyricism on EVI (electronic valve instrument) served as a counterpoint to Tara Middleton’s bewitching vocals; she was equally deft at melismatic glissandi bolstered by pedal effects or a rending vibrato. A pitched bebop tenor battle between James Stewart and Yahya Abdul-Majid soon gave way to the Arkestra’s trademark cosmic conga line through the billowing smoke.
Playing with a quartet, Sanders exercised masterful restraint throughout his set, hewing toward his ballad repertoire rather than his more cacophonous material. At 75, his robust tenor sound is still immediately recognizable, with or without multiphonics, and easily cut through the venue’s tricky acoustics. Following a bracing rendition of the ballad “The Greatest Love of All,” Sanders segued into Coltrane’s propulsive “Olé,” playing a brief but fiery solo, then sitting back to allow the rhythm section-longtime pianist William Henderson, bassist Nat Reeves and drummer Joe Farnsworth-to build the modal vamp for more than 20 minutes, occasionally spurring the thematic development with an impassioned shout. The piece culminated in a climactic salvo, with Sanders leaping to the altissimo range. There was a shock of recognition from a small but vocal minority as Sanders came in on the sublime opening note of “Naima,” articulating the melody with a consummate balance of filigree and clarity. Sanders closed with “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” leading the crowd in call-and-response vocals over its tidal rhythm, with Washington towering among the masses with his unmistakable coif.
Washington channeled Sanders’ spirituality and the Arkestra’s Afrofuturist energy, joined by an octet including his father, multireedist Rickey Washington, which added to the intergenerational passing of the torch. The set list was culled primarily from The Epic, but also featured compositions by other band members, including his pianist, Cameron Graves, a bandleader in his own right. Washington exuded an affable presence between songs, partially owing to his tight-knit relationship with the band, part of the West Coast Get Down, a collective that grew up together in Los Angeles.
One anecdote gave insight into his rhythmic approach to the saxophone and his choice of two drummers, in this instance Tony Austin and Robert Miller. “I used to be a drummer, and in my heart of hearts I think I’ve still got a little bit of drummer in me,” Washington said. “Drummers have a secret society where they get together and it’s called shedding. It looks like they’re talking, just conversating on the instrument.” Austin and Miller then performed an extended call-and-response solo drum conversation. The revelation came on Terence Blanchard’s “Malcolm’s Theme,” arranged by Washington and vocalist Patrice Quinn with lyrics adapted from Ossie Davis’ eulogy for Malcolm X. Quinn delivered the forceful melody against a Latin beat, letting out a series of shrieks during the bridge. This was not a dirge, but a tribute to a living legacy; the song received some of the most riotous applause of the night. The set closed with “The Rhythm Changes” (incidentally not a “rhythm changes”), a midtempo shuffle Washington embellished with improvised motivic hip-hop hooks. An encore from Washington’s next album blazed for three vertiginous minutes. “If you can tell what time it’s in,” Washington said with a smirk, “I’ll give you a big old hug.”