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Kamasi Washington at Kings Theatre, Brooklyn

Kamasi Washington (Kings Theatre, Brooklyn. 20 February 2020. Review by Dan Bergsagel)

It has probably been five years since Kamasi Washington last played an intimate venue, but the Kings Theatre is really at the other extreme: as a 3000-capacity purpose-built performance space in New York, it is perhaps bested only by the Radio City Music Hall.

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Kamasi Washington
Photo credit and ©: Tim Dickeson

It initially fills slowly while opening DJ Natasha Diggs (of Chelsea’s Soul in the Horn) does an excellent job of spinning Gil Scott-Heron, Aretha Franklin, and remixed Gregory Porter. Considering the cavernous palatial decor of the refurbished hall – dripping in mirrors, gold mermaid statues and miles of red velvet drapery – when Kamasi Washington and co enter it is in a comparatively muted manner; Ambling on, mugs of tea in hand, and with Washington giving a calm, polite greeting while everyone fiddles with their instruments. The narrative arc of the evening starts here – structured solos and the classic sound of Washington’s tenor and Ryan Porter‘s searching trombone – in turns supple or bubbling, leading to a blistering finish – while the twin drummers appear to be racing each other (a very different approach to Mark Guiliana and Billy Martin’s drum duet showcase at Sultan Room in January). 

Journey brings in Patrice Quinn on vocals, singing of earnest spiritual enlightenment and joy, but it is the arrival of father Rickey Washington that signals a step change on stage. Suddenly we have moved effectively from a quintet (one drummer too many, one vocalist on the sidelines) to having a meaty four instrument frontline: Kamasi’s tenor and Porter’s trombone joined by Rickey’s soprano sax and Quinn joining them with some non-lyrical contributions. The additional melody machines provide the richer collective tone familiar from The Epic, and Re Run is an overpowering, reverberating reminder. 

After a quick 101 of What Harmonies Are from Washington calling out a dominant ninth to BIGYUKI on the keys for the crowd to marvel at, the group run into a condensed version of 2017 EP Harmonies of Difference through the finishing piece and single Truth, layering five melodies to demonstrate a harmonic point – a heartfelt double bass intro from Ben Williams, followed by screaming synth and bellowing vocals which together bring a high-church opulence to the sound. And it’s these final, emphatic pieces performed with gusto and flair, and layered like a cake that are Kamasi Washington’s justified trademark. Fists of Fury brings closure to the set with its satisfying phrasing and almost James Bond-esque cinematic vocal aesthetic, and a controlled percussive intermission from Ronald Bruner Jr on drums. 

It may have been five years since Kamasi Washington last played an intimate venue, and it’s certainly been nearly five since I first heard The Epic. Even if the number of musicians on stage can’t always match the decadent numbers in production on the records, it certainly still packs a punch, even in the most surprising venues.

Kings Theatre Brooklyn interior. Photo credit: Moucheraud / Creative Commons

A note on the venue: Tucked between discount clothing shops on a normally uneventful local high street deeper in Brooklyn than many people would ever go, entering into the rapidly expanding space of the Kings Theatre is a bit like wandering into a shopfront tucked between Aldi and Poundland on Kilburn High Road and finding you’re in the Royal Albert Hall. I’d highly recommend including it on any list of venues for a show while in New York.

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