Kamasi Washington previews the future of jazz at titanic First Ave show

Kamasi Washington at First Ave last night.

Kamasi Washington at First Ave last night. Steven Cohen

Los Angeles tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington is 21st century jazz’s chosen one, but while his breakthrough was sudden, it didn’t exactly happen overnight.

Washington can be heard on popular, beloved records that date as far back as Ryan Adams’ 2001 album Gold. But while the saxophonist kept busy throughout the 2000s, performing and contributing to records by artists as varied as Snoop Dogg, Robin Thicke to We Are Scientists, he wasn’t a star just yet.

That changed in 2015 when, following his noted contributions to Kendrick Lamar’s opus To Pimp a Butterfly, Washington released his three-hour album The Epic. The achievement not only showcased Washington as one of the finest instrumentalists in contemporary jazz, earning honest-to-god comparisons to John Coltrane, but also a brilliant writer and arranger, erecting walls of sound heavy on strings and choirs that gloriously swoop and cascade. The Epic became the most widely acclaimed jazz album in years, eventually leading to Washington performing at festivals including Bonnaroo and Glastonbury.

This September, Washington released his follow-up to The Epic, the 31-minute Harmony of Difference. An exploration of musical counterpoint, the EP consists of five relatively short compositions before closing with the stunning 13-minute “Truth,” which brings to mind the more, well, epic moments of The Epic. Harmony of Difference brought Washington even more acclaim, more comparisons to ‘Trane, Ornette Coleman, and Charles Lloyd.

“It feels like people are becoming more open,” Washington told the Chicago Tribune this week when asked about the state of jazz. “With information so accessible on the internet, it’s easy to get music and base opinions about whether you like something after listening to it. I found that jazz, when you open yourself up to it, has a very high success rate.”

And while there were certainly many true jazz heads in attendance at last night’s First Avenue show, a significant percentage of the audience was doubtless seeing their first real jazz show – which meant the crowd was about as open-minded as any musician could ask for. The ensuing two-hour performance and the world-class musicianship on display throughout served as proof of jazz’s enduring power.

The ensemble first exploded for the galvanizing “Change of the Guard,” primarily powered by Washington and trombonist Ryan Porter. Over the course of the night, each player got their shine. Despite Washington’s towering individual status within jazz right now, he always seemed less impressed with himself than he was with the talent assembled around him, genuinely marveling at his fellow musicians’ playing. In an evening full of memorable moments, the performance of “Truth,” one of the year’s most remarkable pieces of music, solidified what the band can do as an entire unit. Washington explained the song’s five intertwining melodies “as a metaphor for how beautiful we all are,” and the performance was every bit as thrilling as the EP’s studio version.

Singer Patrice Quinn, the vocalist who leads The Epic highlights including “Henrietta Our Hero” and “Malcolm’s Theme,” was on stage a full 35 minutes before she was finally needed, stepping to the mic for “Henrietta.” For a complete jazz newbie, the vocal-driven songs are probably the most immediately appealing on The Epic, but inside First Ave last night, that didn’t matter. Anyone who invested in a ticket was ready for the total experience, and I doubt a single soul left disappointed.

Since The Epic was released two and a half years ago, Washington has been lauded as “the future of jazz,” implying that an explosive jazz renaissance is imminent. Whether that type of movement comes to fruition remains to be seen, but with musicians like these around, there shouldn’t be any doubt that the genre is in good hands.