“We’re more similar than we are different, but the differences we do have are beautiful.”
These words were spoken by Kamasi Washington, an impressive, calm figure in a large black cloak, heavy beaded necklace and colorful knit hat. He spoke gently into the microphone, cradling his saxophone comfortably against his stomach.
A year after his November performance in the Majestic Theatre, Washington and his band returned to Madison earlier this month, playing instead at the recently opened Sylvee.
Washington says he delivers this same message of togetherness at every show he performs. Along with the message comes music that is soothing yet invigorating, supernatural yet real.
Before Washington took the stage however, Butcher Brown — a five-piece experimental jazz band from Richmond, Virginia — gathered in a corner of the stage like a group of friends in a basement. Among the tangle of wires and amps was a little old lamp with a warm glow, which they switched on before beginning to play.
Their first song was a cacophony, each band member seeming to play different rhythms, the instruments refusing to interact. The audience was hesitant.
The obvious talent of the musicians — a guitar player, trumpet and saxophone player, bass player, keyboard player and drummer — seemed obscured by the noise.
By the second song, though, they got into a groove, and by the third the audience was hollering and dancing. By the end of their set, I — and I believe the audience also — thought they could’ve had a whole show to themselves.
"As the triumphant opener left the stage to boisterous applause, the audience remembered who they came to see — a musician who has been hailed as a jazz legend of our time."
But, as the triumphant opener left the stage to boisterous applause, the audience remembered who they came to see — a musician who has been hailed as a jazz legend of our time.
After what seemed like an hour wait, Washington and his band ambled onto the stage. He recently released a new album, Heaven and Earth, which followed the critically acclaimed 2017 EP Harmony of Difference. Washington’s breakout album, The Epic, was released in 2015.
Previously, Washington has worked with hip-hop and R&B legends like Chaka Khan, Lauryn Hill and Snoop Dogg. Now, he plays with a band of extremely talented musicians, some of whom he’s been close with since his childhood in L.A.
Washington’s style falls somewhere in between classic and experimental jazz, culminating in what I can only describe as a spiritual musical experience.
Onstage were two drummers, Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner, Jr., who shared one intense song for a full-blown drum battle, or as Washington more accurately put it, had a conversation with each other. Ryan Porter played a smooth trombone while Brandon Coleman played impressive keys and sang.
Miles Mosley on upright bass became an unexpected vocalist and belted out one upbeat song called “Abraham,” hyped up the crowd and whipped out a bow from a case slung across the upright.
Next to Washington was Patrice Quinn, the band’s singer, who danced interpretively throughout the show, throwing out her arms and exploding with expressive movement whenever the music moved her. The band played some of their well-known vocal-centric tunes, including “The Rhythm Changes” and “Truth,” as well as improvisational instrumentals.
Washington himself held his saxophone thoughtfully, like it was a live creature, which it might have been: It seemed to sing in his hands.
The Sylvee was reminiscent of a stadium with a large cement clearing and flashing lights. It lacked the wisdom and magic of The Majestic, where Washington performed last year.
Despite the lack of ambience, the music filled the space with emotion. The emotion was not simply happiness or sadness — it was everything. I felt joy and melancholy at the same time. I laughed at Washington’s detailed description of his bandmate being a prodigy drummer as a baby. I started crying during “Truth.”
I closed my eyes and felt the presence of the other watchers and the band up on the stage. I felt a connection between all of us, through the music and through our shared humanity.
“Our diversity — diversity all around the world — should not be tolerated … it should be celebrated,” said Washington.
The last song of the performance was “Fists of Fury,” an anthem of oppression and power that seemed especially relevant to America in 2018. Quinn, vibrant with emotion, spoke along to the music into the microphone:
“Our time as victims is over/ We will no longer ask for justice/ Instead we will take our retribution.”
As the music swelled, she chanted these words louder and louder until she was yelling them at the top of her lungs. The crowd was transfixed by the power of the words and by the music until finally, the music crescendoed to a halt and the band threw up their fists. The lights dropped, the crowd cheered and the show was over.
Grace Wallner is Features Editor for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of her work, click here.