Kamasi Washington, a California-based jazz saxophonist and composer, and his phenomenal band enchanted Madison with a beautiful performance of classic jazz woven into an aura of experimentation and spirituality.
Watchful loiterers shivered outside the nostalgic Majestic Theatre hoping to buy an extra ticket from someone to get into the sold-out show. Inside the cozy, ornate theater, people milled about near the bar and gathered around the stage, which was illuminated with streams of foggy red and yellow lights. A respectable crowd was formed by the time the opener took the stage.
PHO, a youthful band from Minneapolis, ushered in the jazzy vibe of the night with their unique blend of funk and classic brass. They played with upbeat nonchalance, as though they were a bunch of friends jamming in their basement. The two guitar players seemed to be in the midst of a lively conversation with the saxophone and trumpet players on the other side of the stage. The band members were talented, but the frontman was a little overbearing.
Although their website states that their new album, Two, is “sprinkled with psychedelia and hip hop,” their genre can best be described as “power jazz.” PHO’s upbeat enthusiasm was infectious, and the audience was loving it. As an opener, PHO was successful in sustaining and boosting the excited atmosphere, creating a jazz club feel.
There was a bit of a wait before Washington took the stage, but rather than diffusing the anticipation in the crowd, the pause added suspense. Finally, Washington and his band strolled onstage to enthusiastic applause.
Washington has entered the solo music scene fairly recently, having released his first critically acclaimed album, The Epic, in 2015. He’s been playing with iconic musicians for a while — he started off his career touring with Snoop Dogg, and he’s also toured with R&B and hip hop legend Lauryn Hill — but now he is one of the icons, having been christened by some as the greatest jazz musician of our time. His new album, Harmony of Difference, has garnered excellent reviews so far.
As Washington and his band played, the energy in the room shifted from excitement to pure emotion, ranging from nostalgia, to joy and perhaps even to a sense of melancholy.
The audience bounced and swayed to the infectious, funky beats and impressive sax solos. Even someone unsure about the jazz genre would have found it difficult to stand still.
Washington’s band was made up of a trombonist, a piano player, two drummers, one bass player (stand up and electric), a singer/dancer and two drummers. Although Washington would’ve been fantastic on his own, the band brought the whole performance together. They were each immensely talented musicians, weaving seamlessly in and out of solos in the inexplicable format of improvisational jazz.
About halfway through the show, Washington welcomed his own father to the stage, saying, “This is the guy who taught me everything I know.” There was a sense of family and connection between the members of the band not just limited to their connection as musicians, and it translated to the audience.
The energy in the sold-out theater continued to escalate and didn’t stagger for the entirety of the show. Most importantly, the performance had an overarching theme of unity and mutual understanding. At one point, Washington looked out earnestly at the audience and entrusted them with this piece of immortal wisdom — “We get so worried about our differences, when we should be celebrating our diversity.”
The performance had the audience dancing the entire time while also thinking about the importance of togetherness — and even had me contemplating life itself. The experience was no less than transcendent.