Pic by Daniel Boud
Sydney Opera House, October 9
Size is not everything but it’s certainly something in any Kamasi Washington show.
There’s the scope of the influences: from skronking free jazz and the fringes of the spiritual scene, to funk and soul; from afro-centrism and gospel, to Debussy and melodic west coast explorations. (Not for nothing was the pre-show music an unlikely mix of Rolling Stones and James Brown.)
This offered multiple ports of entry for an audience which was as varied in age, sex and status, and as colourful, as the usually ebulliently-dressed Washington was monochromatic, but which could grasp a common understanding.
There’s the ambition of his intention: unity and common love, ecstasy and serenity, the harmony of difference - to borrow from his EP title – that serves as a musical, spiritual and social basis.
Euphoria was so regular through this concert that it almost became a default as long pieces built on themselves like self-fulfilling prophecies. But that regularity served to emphasise the genuineness of Washington’s emotional intent as much as the climaxes of the compositions.
And there’s the scale of his sound. While the choirs and string sections of the records weren’t here, there was still two drummers, trombone, bass (also doubling up on vocals), keyboardist on a variety of electric instruments including a Moog synthesiser and keytar (and taking on lead vocodered vocals at one point), a vocalist, and a double Washington sax pack: Kamasi and his father, Rickey (also doubling up on flute).
Pic by Daniel Boud
That lineup could soar and it could push you back into your seat, especially when drummers Robert Miller Jr and Ronald Bruner Jr drove harder to match one of Washington’s solo peaks. And the explorations of keyboardist Brandon Coleman were as lively as they were adventurous.
The trade-off was that this sizeable sound package meant singer Patrice Quinn was pretty much sidelined for a lot of the night, her voice, such a tonal as much as lyrical contributor on records, squeezed out of the mix; that keytar may as well have been unplugged half the time (not necessarily a bad thing?); and subtleties were sometimes lost in the hard textured force that accentuated the flaws for amplified instruments in this room, still, such as when bass player Miles Mosley pushed the envelope.
Furthermore, I must admit that the 20 minute duelling kits/”conversation” between those powerhouse drummers, followed by a solo set by Bruner Jr which ran just under 10 minutes, broke me. Oh they’re good: able to sweep away with force as well as stir you with shifting rhythms. But it was too much, too long, too internally-focused – for me anyway – and the show never fully recovered.
But those sublime periods, and there were many, were higher, longer and deeper than most have managed in this form.
During the eased-back solos of trombonist Ryan Porter, as much as the sparkling ones of Washington the younger, you could fold yourself into the beauty. In the ecstatic sense of a community reaching for heaven you could disappear into the mass.
Sometimes it was too much, but you would only know that by trying. So, yeah, size mattered, one way or another.