© Terris Schneider - Kamasi Washington @ Vogue Theatre, Vancouver - May 30th 2024

Live Review: Kamasi Washington @ The Vogue Theatre, Vancouver – May 30th 2024

Review by Krysten Maier

Los Angeles saxophonist, bandleader and composer Kamasi Washington landed at Vancouver’s Vogue Theatre this week to delight the city’s appreciators of fine contemporary jazz. As the hottest jazz musician of the age, the remarkable man persists in pushing the envelope, moving from strength to strength in collaboration and autonomously. Plumbing the musical depths with the wide-ranging likes of Kendrick Lamar, Florence + the Machine, Herbie Hancock, and Thundercat, as well as playing in supergroup DINNER PARTY, Washington is flexing his well-toned musical muscle all over the scene. 

However, we owe this visit a return to personal endeavours, as the tour celebrates his recently dropped LP, Fearless Movement. The set list followed the album’s flow faithfully and didn’t divert to earlier work for even a single song. The new album sees Washington honing the epic scope of his initial offerings to a finer point, with soulful, playful, and vital themes resounding. The album’s brilliance revealed itself tenfold in the live iterations, as the wonderful group of eight musical accomplices weaved expansive explorations that challenged limitations at every turn.

Plucked out of relative obscurity to serve as Kamasi’s opening act was Peregrine Falls, an underground hardcore jazz duo made up of drummer Kenton Loewen and guitarist Gord Grdina. Their performance was an arresting delight. Sparks flew off the pair as they sunk swiftly into a noisy groove. Loewen hammered the kit passionately, banging the skins in an interpretation of the psyche. Grdina hunched intently over his guitar, bowing and banging on the strings to produce an experimental and rough-edged sound. Each instrumentalist was so purposeful in the driving jam session, cultivating furious music that constantly raised the stakes.

Peregrine Falls performing at Vogue Theatre in Vancouver, BC on May 30th, 2024.

“If you want to get rid of some money, we know exactly where you should do it,” Grdina joked engagingly, flogging their eponymous 2017 vinyl from which they played. The album is a great listen, start to finish, and the setlist selections were top tier, including a song Grdina recognized to be “more poignant now than it was when they wrote it,” entitled “Gaza”. Teasing a Middle Eastern harmonium sound out of his bowed guitar, Grdina plucked a lonely tune over ambient tom drums. It built into a breathtaking melodious score and erupted passionately. Shouts of “Free Palestine” echoed across the room at the song’s close.

Reversing the roles, Grdina took his turn to hold down the rhythm section, playing a repetitive lick to keep the pace as Kent broke free on the drums in their final song. It was unreal to see him let loose. He bafflingly managed to incorporate two metal bars into the percussion, dropping them listlessly over parts of the kit before depositing them down onto the snare. He remarkably worked the metal tapping into his intricate rhythm; it was something totally original and the cherry on top of an intense show of skill.

Peregrine Falls performing at Vogue Theatre in Vancouver, BC on May 30th, 2024.

After some detailed prep by sound techs on an elaborate stage, the larger-than-life figure of Kamasi Washington and his band took the stage. “Even in the dark you look good,” he expressed, joyfully casting his eyes to the dimly lit packed house. He took a seat at a small keyboard centre-stage, his tenor sax strapped around his neck, ready to do battle as organ strains started to hum. His long-time collaborator Patrice Quinn came in with the invocation of Fearless Movement’s opening number, “Lesanu”. Quinn brought up the mood, throwing her hands up in praise as tenor and soprano sax became one in the song’s alluring melody. Her sultry and breathy vocals would shine throughout the set.

It was so beautiful that the show would be opened this way by father and son, as I learned shortly that it was Kamasi’s father Rickey Washington who would play soprano sax and flute on this tour. Growing up in a home steeped in music rubbed off on Kamasi, as he first picked up his father’s old saxophone at the age of 13. A couple of years later Kamasi definitively felt the call to musicianship when his music teacher thrust him into an unplanned solo mid-performance. From there he developed the drive to hone his craft, and the rest is history. 

Kamasi Washington performing at Vogue Theatre in Vancouver, BC on May 30th, 2024.

The intimate history, Kamasi’s sensational rise to excellence and all, sparkled in his father’s eyes throughout the entire performance at the Vogue. As Kamasi sunk into the depths of his visceral soloing, Rickey could be seen staring almost in awe at his son, brimming with love and pride. Washington possesses such a deliberate manner on his instrument; his arresting style got all my neurons alight and triggered shivers on the back of my skull from the first moment. His stage demeanor was beautiful too, as he took a moment of gratitude for the existence of music. “I’m so thankful for the life that I’ve had that I get to be here in this moment making music with and for you with joy and love,” he gushed. “I don’t take it for granted.”

The musical connection has evidently spread to a third generation in the Washington family, as Kamasi shared the special meaning behind the next track “Asha the First”, inspired by his three-year-old daughter. “She loves music too,” he explained playfully. “She gets up every day and plays her piano… At 7 AM. Every day, there she is, playing her piano. Hard.” He recalled the first time she played something intentionally, the same thing over and over again. It was the moment that she recognized that if she played the same keys, the same notes would come out–she discovered the difference between making sound and making music. The enraptured crowd awwwed their approval as he told the tender tale.

As a tribute to this landmark moment, Kamasi built a whole song around his daughter’s found melody, a ghostly and captivating number that featured Ryan Porter on the trombone. A harmonic effect on his mic produced a wholly unique style to the instrument. We also saw DJ Battlecat come into his own in the set, creating stuttering and skipping beats to swirl hip-hop lines into modern jazz. It was a thrilling marriage of two African American forged genres as only this innovator knows how. The joyful breakdown got the crowd swaying side to side before bringing it back to the chorus in unison and a climactic power line before folding with a final ghostly gasp.

Kamasi Washington performing at Vogue Theatre in Vancouver, BC on May 30th, 2024.

Washington paid respect equally to every one of his bandmates throughout the heavily improvised set, allowing them to show their best. Brandon Coleman shone from his keyboard power station during “Computer Love”, getting taken over by the funk as a demure solo ripped open into an auditory explosion that radiated from his body and soul. The next track, “Road to Self (KO)” featured Miles Mosley on the upright bass. His fingers moved faster than the speed of light, strumming and pinging wildly. He seamlessly produced a bow and sawed the instrument to perfection, his arms extended wide over the big body in an effortful stance, highlighting the range and depth of the instrument. Tony Austin took command of the drum kit so effortlessly that it almost masked the unreal complexity of rhythms he was carrying off.

The whole group formed a sort of hive mind on stage, forming the perfect union. This came across, particularly in the cosmic journey of “Interstellar Peace (The Last Stance)”. I heeded Kamasi’s advice to best enjoy the song with one’s eyes closed, following the music’s stardust trails and allowing the universe to expand in my mind’s eye and transport me to a far-off place.

Washington’s auditory poetry found its close as it does on the album with “Prologue”. Laughing that he is literate and knows that the prologues normally go at the front, Kamasi explained this unexpected arrangement. “In my experience, the end is normally the beginning. In order to get somewhere new you have to leave somewhere old. In order to get where we want to be, we have to leave where we are. So the beginning of where we want to be is the end of where we don’t want to be.” 

Kamasi Washington performing at Vogue Theatre in Vancouver, BC on May 30th, 2024.

The audience cooed approvingly once more, willing to take in the artist’s tantalizing pearls of wisdom and accompanying musical expressions long into the night. “Prologue”’s thoroughly appealing hook and spicy rhythms sizzling in syncopation provided the perfect canvas for one last hoorah for Washington to showcase his soaring skills. With his fingers flying at a blinding pace, the man orchestrated a violent and powerful sound, wowing everyone right up to the final note. It was a privilege to catch such a vigorous performance by a living legend in the world of jazz.

Kamasi Washington performing at Vogue Theatre in Vancouver, BC on May 30th, 2024.

Set List

Asha the First
Computer Love (Zapp Cover)
Road to Self (KO)
Get Lit
Interstellar Peace (The Last Stance)
Lines in the Sand

Photos © Terris Schneider

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