Concert review: Kamasi Washington | 05.05.23, City Winery

The new City Winery venue in St. Louis hosted jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington for not one but two sold out, full houses—an early show at 7:00pm and a late show at 10:30pm. St. Louis is a city that loves jazz and blues, but this particularly strong response is the natural consequence of a stellar performance from Washington and his ensemble at last fall’s Music at the Intersection. An ambitious performer, Washington varies the setlist at each show, between cities and sets, so both early and late audiences enjoyed a unique mix of first-time-tonight material while including classics within his catalog of six full-length albums. 

Kamasi Washington is a man of little words during a performance, with the occasional dry banter and deadpan delivery to catch you by surprise. At the late show, he was surprised to see the room expanded once the red velvet curtain, presumably separating the venue from the bar during the first set, was opened. “I didn’t even know that was back there!” Besides the occasional praise for his bandmates, Washington was otherwise quietly intent upon the music he had to share with us, stoic behind the mic in his trademark dashiki, putting in the work for a glorious future foretold by greats such as Pharoah Sanders and Sun Ra, and guiding us on a cosmic jazz journey for the evening.

Two drummers, Tony Austin and Robert Miller, sat at opposite corners of the stage, with bass player MIles Mosley nestled between them on upright bass. Lining the front of stage right were vocalist and positive vibes-conjurer-Patrice Quinn, and the elder Washington—Rickey—beaming from behind alternating flute and saxophone. Opposite them, at stage left, were the vibrant Brandon Coleman on keys and Ryan Porter playing a cool trombone.

At the center of it all stood Kamasi Washington, poised to conduct his ensemble with intuition and affection. All told, I would estimate the band played five, maybe six songs throughout the night, each one stretched to new lengths, reworked and toyed with until everyone on that stage had their moment in the spotlight. Opening with “The Garden Path,” a single released in 2022, brought everyone together in harmony with plenty of opportunities to branch into solos and return to the refrain, like a merry-go-round that keeps on spinning as you jump off and back again.

“Street Fighter Mas” was a personal favorite that gives Kamasi the opportunity to show off some sharp staccato notes and highlights the clever use of Quinn’s voice not only to deliver lyrics but also as an instrument, contributing the uniquely smoky and airy quality of her voice alongside the saxophones. However, as the venue is still relatively new, the sound mixing for this set never seemed to fully gel as well as the band, which fed off each other naturally while the instrument levels sounded as if in constant adjustment, sometimes blaring a background instrument, sometimes losing Quinn in the mix, and occasionally throwing fierce feedback in the faces of those at a mic stand, leaving Quinn and Rickey Washington to look personally offended at the screeches.

Otherwise, the band seemed genuinely pleased with the evening, giving each other and themselves a pat on the back and some extra time when a solo exceeded expectations. Mosley got creative with his moments in “Truth,” mixing bow and percussive moves as a briefly one-man act. For his part, Coleman was hesitant to relinquish the controls when given command, pivoting from one keyboard to another. The crowd was generous with those cheers of victory every time a run built and concluded successfully. And the joy of seeing father and son jazz legends appreciate each other’s work onstage, playing side-by-side, the torch and the bearer, is a rare treat not to be missed.

The big closer, “Fists of Fury,” gave the keys and saxophone in particular one final moment to dazzle us on one final journey, as well as a rare and mighty chorus to chant along with, on one final journey: “Our time as victims is over/ We will no longer ask for justice/ Instead we will take our retribution.” Quinn showed us the way to sing it properly, arms outstretched, with power and prowess. Our fires stoked, our curiosities piqued, our universes expanded and minds opened a little further, Kamasi Washington and his crew were generous in their offerings of both personal growth and wonder. It’s a streak of visits I hope they maintain with another gracious visit sooner than later. | Courtney Dowdall

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