For two good years now the jazz saxophonist and bandleader Kamasi Washington, 34, has been all the rage, receiving high-profile write-ups in magazines such as GQ, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, and DownBeat. Some of the write-ups implied the California native has put the jazz world on his shoulders and is carrying it into the future. Washington’s triple-disc debut “The Epic” was one of the best jazz albums of 2015. It was indeed a wonderful outing and a solid example the saxophonist deserved all the back patting he's received.
Friday evening, at the Michigan Theater, in the heart of Ann Arbor, MI, Washington and his group The Next Step opened the University Musical Society’s 2016-2017 series with a 90-minute set best described as neo-funk with some traces of jazz. It was the group’s first time playing The Ann Arbor Detroit area. If you attended the concert hoping to get a repeat of the spiritual experience that “The Epic” caused, chances were you left the concert a bit disappointed.
Washington & The Next Step performed some music from “The Epic”. Washington is talented and charismatic. He plays aggressively. All last night, he was blowing so forcefully, I feared his head was going to explode before the concert ended. He cites the iconic saxophonist John Coltrane as a big influence. Listening, to Washington loud and rambunctious blowing, I wondered if saxophonist Maceo Parker was also a big influence.
As a bandleader, Washington isn’t a ball-hog. Some of the members of The Next Step are Washington’s childhood friends, and Washington shared with the capacity audience some humorous stories of growing up with them before featuring the members on select compositions.
The entire concert Washington divvied up the spotlight among the members saxophonist Rickey Washington (his father), trombonist Ryan Porter, keyboardist Brandon Coleman, bassist Miles Mosley, vocalist Patrice Quinn, and drummers Tony Austin and Robert Miller.
Save for Quinn, who has a lovely voice, and who stood stage left gyrating seductively most of the evening; the other musician's solos were heavy on showboating. Coleman was the most egregious showboater, toggling between the keyboard to the keytar.
A noteworthy point of the show occurred when the Washington’s, Quinn, Mosely and Porter left the stage so the drummers could engage in a fun “cutting contest”. The entire concert was over the top, but many of the attendees were in heaven listening to The Next Step’s funk-inspired brand of jazz. The 90-minute set felt like a jam session where aggressive playing and showboating was the order of the evening.