“Let’s have some fun. Here we go,” called saxophonist Kamasi Washington — though he then cued the somewhat funereal drums that introduce “Change of the Guard”, the lead track of the hit triple CD The Epic. Soon, however, the two drummers switched to modal swing, the 22 voices of the T.O.P. Gospel Choir “aaaahed” insistently, the 33 strings of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra shimmered and we entered a world pitched somewhere between Star Trek and Sun Ra.
Although the American and his band have been touring the album since last year’s London Jazz Festival, this packed late-night Prom was the first time that a British audience has experienced Washington’s musical fantasia in full. The band still stretched out, the drummers’ hypnotic energy still mesmerised and solos still built to a peak. But now the subtle changes from swing to hip-hop and the profusion of black pop references were embedded in dense orchestral textures, or starkly revealed when strings and choir fell away.
Washington’s orchestrations eschew the flash for the close-packed layers of his stated influences — among them Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Norman Connors. On their own they would be overly sentimental, but in this context they added contrast and drama.
Not that this is at the expense of serious jazz. At this performance pianist Brandon Coleman was a real box of tricks, dropping doo-wop balladry and old-school rhythm and blues into surging two-chord vamps and fast modal lines. Miles Mosley’s Jimi Hendrix-style bowed bass bought both finale and encore to a peak. There was a lovely flute solo from Washington’s father, Rickey. Vocalist Patrice Quinn was integrated in the ensembles and a powerful fey-voiced lead on Washington’s somewhat otherworldly lyrics.
Washington himself remained the dominant presence, despite muddled amplification. Too often he was overwhelmed by the backing just as he came into his stride, while quieter moments revealed the subtle phrasing and warm, airy tone that was otherwise lost.
Overall, though, this was a minor annoyance. The conjoining of past and present was subtle. The band and orchestra’s one-off meeting was as natural as a longstanding companionship, even on the Disneyesque “The Space Traveller”, the evening’s only new tune. And the full jazz-fantasy package freshened the music with a sprinkling of showbiz pizzazz. Washington’s orchestral epic is marvellously entertaining.
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