Kamasi Washington's Mumbai gig a showcase for why he's among the most relevant artists in contemporary jazz

By closing with the call-to-arms “Fists Of Fury”, Kamasi Washington reminded us that as energetic and enjoyable as his music may be, it’s intrinsically tied to the politics of our time. And that’s why he’s among the most relevant artists in contemporary jazz in more ways than one.

Amit Gurbaxani August 30, 2019 17:14:27 IST
Kamasi Washington's Mumbai gig a showcase for why he's among the most relevant artists in contemporary jazz

On social media, a number of fans have described American jazz composer and tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s performance at Mumbai’s Royal Opera House, on Wednesday, 28 August, as if it was a divine experience. As was evident at the gig, impressively organised by relatively new promoters Third Culture Entertainment, his music can uplift spirits. It also has the increasingly rare ability to turn jazz atheists into believers.

Washington has been called a revivalist with good reason. While his take on the genre has improvisation at its heart, it’s expansive without being overindulgent (unless you really, really hate virtuosic instrumental solos). We can’t remember the last time we saw a jazz band perform 20-minute-long songs without our attention wavering even once.

Kamasi Washingtons Mumbai gig a showcase for why hes among the most relevant artists in contemporary jazz

From Kamasi Washington's gig at the Royal Opera House in Mumbai on 28 August. All photos courtesy Ranadeep Chakravarty for Firstpost

At Washington’s show, there were about half-a-dozen of them and they kept you transfixed throughout his nearly two-hour set. In fact, we’re surprised we didn’t see more people get up and dance as concert opener “Street Fighter Mas” was transformed from the groovy jam heard on his double album Heaven and Earth into a propulsive, raucous and infectious celebration of life.

His astonishing lung power ensured his sax rang bright even against the richly textured wall of sound being drawn by his equally remarkable band, each of whom — trombone player Ryan Porter, double bassist Miles Mosley, drummers Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr., keyboardist BIGYUKI aka Masayuki Hirano and his father, soprano saxophone and flute player Rickey Washington — had several turns in the spotlight. Mosley’s soul composition “Abraham” was a masterclass in double bass while an eye-popping drum duet/duel between Austin and Bruner Jr. stayed on the right side of the fine line between showcasing and showboating.

Kamasi Washingtons Mumbai gig a showcase for why hes among the most relevant artists in contemporary jazz Kamasi Washingtons Mumbai gig a showcase for why hes among the most relevant artists in contemporary jazz

A particular highlight was “Truth”, which Washington preluded with a short speech. When he told the crowd, “I don’t need to look like you to love you, I don’t need to speak the same language as you to love you, I don’t need to have the same beliefs to love you and I love you,” he promptly evoked a loud “We love you too” from a member of the audience. He said the song was about how “diversity is not something to be tolerated, it’s something to be celebrated” and then exemplified that statement by seamlessly integrating “five different melodies” with the aid of Mosley, Washington senior, vocalist Patrice Quinn, and Porter.

By closing with the call-to-arms “Fists Of Fury”, which gave Hirano some well-deserved time to shine and which Quinn sang with an arresting blend of emotion and flair, Washington reminded us that as energetic and enjoyable as his music may be, it’s intrinsically tied to the politics of our time. And that’s why he’s among the most relevant artists in contemporary jazz in more ways than one.

Amit Gurbaxani is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been writing about music, specifically the country's independent scene, for nearly two decades. He tweets @TheGroovebox

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