SAN FRANCISCO — Standing on stage with his tenor saxophone in his mouth, Kamasi Washington looked like the bow of a broad clipper ship cutting through a sea of sound. The 37-year-old somehow looked both gentle and imposing as he stood on stage at the Warfield clad in a blue and white striped poncho. His band’s raucous opening number, “Street Fighter Mas,” was more than a little bit rock and roll.
After all, people don’t generally imagine jazz concerts featuring two drummers on pedestals or nasty funk licks played on a synthesizer, or a sea of screaming fans, but that’s exactly what Washington’s septet brought to San Francisco Friday night on the latest stop of the tour supporting of his latest album, Heaven and Earth.
The second song, “The Rhythm Changes,” featured main vocalist Patrice Quinn. As a beautiful horn melody gave way to a relaxed groove, it started to feel more like a jazz concert. Quinn struck dramatic poses at the microphone. “Our minds, our bodies, our feelings/They change, they alter, they leave us,” she sang. Trombonist Ryan Porter then played an extended solo, walking an elegant line between melancholy and exuberance. As Kamasi Washington took his solo, the band built the simmering groove to a thundering crescendo. Washington wowed the crowd with staccato rhythms and blistering syncopation that evoked the legendary enthusiasm of John Coltrane.
Even as each song passed the 10-minute mark, fans hung on every note and cheered as the band changed its mood on a dime, usually following a hand signal from Washington.
After the first two extended songs, Washington wished his bassist, Miles Mosley, a happy birthday. As if it were his birthday present, the band dove into Mosley’s biblical funk epic “Abraham.” The bassist, wearing sunglasses and a beret, played a thick groove and sang, conjuring some of the most beautiful ugliness from his upright bass, at times coaxing Jimi Hendrix-like feedback. Washington and some of the other band members watched from the side of the stage. The song ended with a Parliament-Funkadelic riff.
Washington next introduced “Truth,” from his 2017 EP, Harmony and Difference, saying he wrote the song “to remind us how beautiful we all are. It’s our differences that make us beautiful. Diversity is not something to be tolerated, but something to be celebrated.”
The song featured five simultaneous melodies. Keyboardist Brandon Coleman belted out some soulful vocals before playing a beautiful, unaccompanied piano solo that was exquisite in its complexity. Eventually the band joined in and began building the groove up behind Washington’s solo. The band’s backing groove and Washington’s solo rose together, until Washington’s bellow-like lungs sent sheets of discordant sound washing over the audience, which seemed to match the band’s intensity with its own.
When the band played new tune “Will You Sing?,” the song sounded almost like traditional bebop.
“Will you sing?/ If your sound can set those captured free/ Will you sing?” Quinn sang. The song grew in intensity with Kamasi Washington again mesmerizing the crowd with staccato bursts from his horn.
With a single motion of his hand, Washington signaled the band’s launch into the iconic riffs of “Fists of Fury.” This rendition differed significantly from the version on Heaven and Earth, sounding almost dirge-like before becoming a kind of shambling shuffle. Coleman and Mosley both played extended solos.
After nearly 10 minutes the song ended and the band left the stage, only to return moments later. The drummers then took turns trading frenetic solos before the band played “Re Run Home,” from Washington’s 2015 album, The Epic.
The evening began with R&B quartet Victory, which turned in an elegant set merging race-conscious acoustic folk with more straight-ahead jazz elements to wonderful effect. Singer-guitarist Victory Boyd’s tender vocals on songs like “Jazz Festival” and “Weatherman,” from 2018 album The Broken Instrument, enchanted. The band mixed smooth acoustic jazz with some really funky James Brown-style chords that Boyd coaxed from her acoustic guitar.
“San Francisco, it’s been a dream,” Boyd said before leaving the stage.
Follow writer David Gill at Twitter.com/songotaku.