Gig Review by Andrew Lindsay with Photography by John Bentley

James Brown sets the scene. At 10pm the funky stabbing horns and burbling bass of ‘Get Up Offa That Thing’ is blasted in its entirety over the PA. The inspiration, according to Brown, came when he was looking at his club audience “sitting down, trying to do a sophisticated thing, listening to funk. One of the tightest bands they’d ever heard in their lives, and they were sitting… I yelled, Get up offa that thing and dance…!”

Kamasi Washington ManchesterAcademy

“Let’s Do It”, announces Kamasi Washington, as he and his band take the stage at Manchester’s Academy. The venue has a fine pedigree starting life in the sixties with jazzers such as Humphrey Lyttelton before embracing the likes of Hendrix, The Who, Cream and Pink Floyd. An audience of around one thousand are here tonight, mostly students. Some are here out of curiosity but most will be familiar with Washington’s contributions to fellow Angelino Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly – that landmark 2015 chart topper which fused hip-hop with jazz and opened up the genre to a new young audience.

Riding high on the critical and audience success of his second album Heaven and Earth Washington’s collective serves a heady brew of politicised funk and free form jazz: just seven numbers stretched out over two hours. Washington clearly loves a large canvas – his two albums to date combined run to six hours of playing time.

Kamasi Washington ManchesterAcademy

It is quite a family affair with many of the band knowing each other since childhood. For ‘The Rhythm Changes’ Washington brings on his Dad to play soprano sax and flute. They create a storming sound but do tend to drown out Patrice Quinn’s somewhat whispery vocal. After Ryan Porter’s trombone solo they take the tempo down a notch or two, introduce some light and shade and allow the singer some space.

Throughout the show Washington lets his bandmates ‘do their thing’ with numerous opportunities for lengthy solos. The two drummers have a slot which surely only other drummers can enjoy; Miles Mosley, the super cool bassist in shades, shoulder armour and beret arrests attention with his fluid rhythms, and Brandon Coleman, he of the infectuous smile, plays one of his own funky muscular compositions which sprawls out unecessarily. The band works best with their ensemble playing especially on the taut rousing climaxes that feature throughout the set. They have been on the road for most of the last twelve months and are a finely honed unit.

Kamasi Washington ManchesterAcademy

Kamasi Washington ManchesterAcademy

It is no big surprise that the solos which resonate most are those of Washington particularly the sublime bluesy close to ‘The Rhythm Changes’ and his work on ‘Truth’; the standout track from the 2017 EP Harmony of Difference. Washington introduces the piece with some heartfelt sentiments extolling diversity as “not something to be tolerated but celebrated. We don’t have to be the same to love one another. I love you”. He explains that five different melodies will play at the same time as a metaphor for differences coming together. Amazingly it works. It’s a moment in time when you close your eyes as the band take flight overlaying intricate spidery patterns on Washington’s trance-inducing solos.

The show ends with two numbers from Heaven and Earth. ‘The Space Travelers Lullaby’ showcases the “queen of space cadets” (Patrice) – there’s a lot of chat about space tonight. A stripped down version of the album’s expansive cinematic Star Trek sound (tour logistics dictate no orchestra and choir) results in a more aggressive jagged version with keyboards featuring prominently.

Kamasi Washington ManchesterAcademy

Finally ‘Fists of Fury’ presents a counterpoint to earlier calls for love and harmony. Based on the original soundtrack to Bruce Lee’s 1972 kung fu film it is a militant call to action: “Our time as victims is over/We will no longer ask for justice/Instead we will take our retribution”. The most lyric heavy of all the pieces tonight it provides the vehicle for Patrice’s best vocal of the evening as well as as another superlative shrieking Washington solo. These transcendent moments are undermined by the sheer length of the piece. A bit like the album really. Sometimes the short and punchy is more powerful than the epic.

So back to James Brown. There was hardly any dancing tonight but there was an engaged, enthralled if rather footsore audience. Kamasi promised that he will be back in Manchester soon. So perhaps next time the larger stage, the superior acoustics and the comfy seats of the RNCM or Stoller Hall?

Setlist: Street Fighter Mas; The Rhythm Changes; Giant Feelings; Truth; Bobby & Tony’s Day Off (drums talking); The Space Travelers Lullaby; Fists of Fury.

Kamasi Washington ManchesterAcademy

Support was provided by Oscar Jerome (Guitar/Vocal) and his three piece band featuring an especially impressive drummer. From South London he melds an array of influences… jazz, hip hop, soul. His short set is distinguished by some spectacular guitar interludes particularly on ‘Gravitate’ and the closing track.

Oscar Jerome ManchesterAcademy

Oscar Jerome ManchesterAcademy

Leave a Reply