It’s hard to accept the adage “Jazz is dead” when saxophonist Kamasi Washington can pack Royale on the Monday before Thanksgiving — and blow the roof off the place for both young groovers and older jazz heads. Of course it doesn’t hurt to have credits on rapper Kendrick Lamar’s modern classic To Pimp a Butterfly, but Washington’s music exudes the power and spirit of old-school jazz adventurers John Coltrane and Sun Ra more than the trappings of hip-hop, while sculpting melodies that can mesmerize listeners who don’t really dig the avant-garde.
Washington also conveys a mix of child-like innocence and mature wisdom in his philosophical approach, crystalized on his new EP Harmony of Difference, a half-hour meditation on diversity that contrasts from his expansive three-disc 2015 debut The Epic. “Diversity shouldn’t be tolerated — it should be celebrated,” the Washington told Monday’s crowd between EP offerings “Humility” and “Truth,” which pulls the suite together by bring overlapping melodies into counterpoint.
The tenor saxophonist spread the love to his eight-piece band, which included his father Rickey, who played flute and soprano sax, joining his son and trombonist Ryan Porter on the front line for a few songs. Ample solo space went to the rest of the prodigious crew of two keyboardists, a bassist (on acoustic and electric) and two drummers — childhood friend Ronald Bruner Jr. even engaged in a wicked percussive showdown with counterpart Tony Austin. And Patrice Quinn stepped forward with soothing vocal affirmation as well as sinuous dance movements.
Given the democratic sprawl of the near-two-hour, seven-song set, there were times where a sit-down venue might have offered a better setting to soak it all in. But when the hulking, black-robed Washington nestled into tenor excursions like set bookends “Change of the Guard” and “The Rhythm Changes” (both from The Epic), patiently building steam into volcanic sheets of sound while hand-waving fans went crazy on the floor of Royale, the world appeared to spin in perfect harmony. Quite the Thanksgiving.