Kamasi Washington pays tribute to Paris at Barbican


“Every note I played, my heart goes out to Paris.”

These are serious times, and West Coast saxophonist Kamasi Washington makes a serious statement. Today we think of our friends in France, and find shared strength in music. Kamasi’s acclaimed triple album The Epic draws on jazz’s history of engagement with social issues and celebrates the possibility of spiritual transcendence: a contemporary antidote to hate through its own form of ‘love supreme’. It has made him a star and brought a diverse audience to the Barbican hall for his London debut.

The album’s reduction to ninety minutes suits it. The smaller live septet format balances the smoother spiritual songs and the strenuous post-Trane sprints driven by Kamasi’s punchy, peppery tone. Both elements express one idea: love. Coltrane’s deep influence informs the music not only in technique but in the spiritual unity of vision running through every note.

A family of old friends, each musician is generously ‘featured’ in turn, showcasing Rickey Washington’s flute, Miles Mosley’s noisy bass effects, Ronald Bruner’s hiphop infused drumming contrasted with Tony Austin’s more florid style. Singer Patrice Quinn has the unenviable task of standing in for the twentypiece choir of the album.

If Kamasi owns the evening it’s partly because we want him to. The band strives above, but shadows remain: the tragic events in Paris, critical acclaim and audience expectation, the legacy of Coltrane. But Kamasi’s celebration of his grandmother “Henrietta our hero” illustrates a touching paradox: the roots of the songs of The Epic are in ordinary life. As in poetry, the epic and universal arise not from bold statements but from small details.

‘The Rhythm Changes’ closes the concert: “Our love, our beauty, our genius,” a great unifying moment stretching out beyond jazz, beyond politics and tragedy, around the world and right back home.

AJ Dehany