8 p.m. Dec. 10 at Headliners Music Hall, 1386 Lexington Rd. in Louisville. $32-$95. 502-584-8088. headlinerslouisville.com/event/kamasi-washington.
“Diversity is something to be celebrated.”
That was the message of Kamasi Washington, one of the most celebrated young jazzmen of his generation, as his time-tripping performance last week at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati headed for home.
To bolster his words, the tenor saxophonist and an industrious seven-member band that included his father, launched into “Truth,” a 15-minute treatise that combined the themes of five tunes from his recent EP. “Harmony of Difference.” into a spacious, organic soul-jazz proclamation.
Washington has been a cultish sensation since spring 2015, when two key recordings established his distinction as a jazz artist and redefined what that title even meant.
His saxophone work on Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” gave Washington immediate credibility among the pop and hip-hop mainstream when the record was released that March. But it was Washington’s own “The Epic” — a sprawling three-hour, three-disc manifesto of bop, funk, soul and spiritually inclined pop issued two months later — that made jazz critics take notice.
Undeniably jazz in design and execution, “The Epic” avoided many of the music’s trademarks. There was swing, to be sure, but much of the music operated with a more rock and soul sense of groove, all of which played out during the Cincinnati performance.
Thematically, “Leroy and Lanisha,” was introduced as a Peanuts-inspired piece that re-imagined the iconic comic strip being set in Washington’s California hometown, Inglewood. But with father Rickey Washington guesting on soprano sax and longtime trombonist Ryan Porter aiding in the orchestration of the band’s front line, the groove was largely left to keyboardist Brandon Coleman to percolate through clavinet-style riffs.
Once locked in, the music sounded less like jazz-funk and more like 1980-era Talking Heads — a neat trick, because Washington’s group didn’t include a guitarist.
What probably has made Washington such a critical favorite over the past two years (the New York Times in 2016 dubbed him “the most talked-about jazz musician since Wynton Marsalis arrived on the New York scene three decades ago”) hasn’t been so much an allegiance to jazz tradition but a willingness to expand on its lyrical, rhythmic and even spiritual possibilities.
The Cincinnati performance emphasized all of that, but in a very old-school way. It possessed the feel of urban-inspired jazz from the early 1970s by touching on vintage electric embellishments (including the Rhodes-style keyboard colors supplied by Coleman) and reserved vocal embellishments (supplied by a choir on “The Epic” and “Harmony of Difference” but by the singular voice of Patrice Quinn onstage).
What resulted recalled the music that Blue Note Records issued about 1971, when its preference turned away from the bop of a previous jazz generation to more R&B-enhanced pre-fusion music. Think Bobby Hutcherson crossed with Sun Ra, but with saxophone leading the way, and you get a sense of where Washington was coming from.
The Cincinnati show also was remarkable for its ensemble feel. Washington might have been the leader, but solos were often catered to group-devised grooves as opposed to any individual grandstanding.
That was especially evident during “Humility” (which, along with “Truth,” came from “Harmony of Difference”). Here, the father-and-son duo, along with Porter, summoned a joyously fierce brass charge that played neatly off a driving piano lead from Coleman that possessed the percussive boldness of early-’70s era McCoy Tyner. As a result, funk and soul were de-emphasized in favor of fearsome swing.
Washington’s embrace of diversity was underscored through the performance’s stylistically broad jazz scope, but it was placed on full thematic display during the show-closing “The Rhythm Changes.” As sung by Quinn, the lyrics were internal and social affirmations, even though the last word went to Washington with a tenor sax solo that leaped about about with boppish freshness and unassuming, cordial accessibility.
But here’s the best part. Washington’s soul-jazz express is finally making its way to Kentucky this weekend. Experience for yourself what the most lauded jazz ambassador of recent years is like when he plays Sunday evening at Headliners Music Hall in Louisville. The more modernistic Los Angeles pop-jazz trio Moonchild will open.
It’s a Secret
After a pair of heralded folk albums produced by Americana chieftains Dave Cobb and T Bone Burnett, respectively, siblings Laura and Lydia Rogers, known professionally as The Secret Sisters, were promptly dumped by their record label, Republic Universal. Enter songsmith Brandi Carlisle, who co-produced the duo’s stunning new album, “You Don’t Own Me Anymore,” for New West Records.
The recording boasts sparse but high complimentary arrangements that underscore the sisters’ rich, unspoiled harmonies. It also earned a Grammy nomination last month for best folk album.
The Secret Sisters bring those sounds to life on Sunday at Willie’s Locally Known, 286 Southland Drive. (8:30 p.m., $12). Brian Dunne opens. Call 859-281-1116 or go to Willieslocallyknown.com.
Read Walter Tunis’ blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.