It's good that Kamasi Washington is a big dude with a major 'fro and a robe like a Cypriot bishop; that way you can see him from the rafter seats. Not many jazz musicians play places big enough for distance to make any difference.
Washington has climbed from local anonymity to national celebrity in about a year, a jump that took fellow Los Angeles improvisers such as Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon and Ornette Coleman at least a decade. Those legends were groundbreakers, though, and last year Washington proved with his breakthrough triple album, "The Epic," that his heart lies in the established 1960s past. That past was an era of revolution and surging black identity, and its turn has come again.
This time, Washington wants to emphasize the joyful aspects of the struggle. He told us to have fun, which we pretty much did, although in a big concert hall, no matter how gawkable the architecture, the most you can usually expect is edification. Washington accomplished zest the old-fashioned Hollywood way -- with size, spectacle and populism.
"The Epic" was jazz with cinematic flavorings; tonight's music, nearly all new, was cinema with jazz flavorings. Active most of the evening, 21 strings stroked hummable riffs while 12 choir members maintained an undulating atmosphere. Neither auxiliary strayed from basic harmonies; Washington delegated the complexities to his charged jazz octet. Pianist Brandon Coleman portrayed a Stravinskian Liberace who could bridge showy effervescence and challenging note choice. The rest of the band followed suit, as bassist Miles Mosely scraped out distorted effects, Ryan Porter yanked human screams from his trombone, and Ronald Bruner and Tony Austin teamed up for a hard-pounding, heavily accented dual-kit drum engine powerful enough to pull groove on a stageful of musicians. Only Washington's father, the fine flutist Rickey Washington, colored inside the lines with his thoughtful, lively solos.
Although somewhat veiled in the mix, Washington's tenor chunked into our earholes with his rough tone and extended runs of uncannily precise staccato notes. When he hit his highs, we could feel his Belief in our scalps.
Singer Patrice Quinn struck a reasonable balance between melody and conversation on Coleman's "Black Man," a piece of soulful nostalgia about an idealized someone. "Space Traveler's Lullabye" literally lulled me into a pleasant dream about the opening of mysterious doors before waking me up with a triumphant climax of beauty and awe. Washington surely figured that his Latin-inflected blowout on the James Bondish theme to the 1972 Bruce Lee vehicle "Fist of Fury" would rock the crowd with its sheer high spirits, and he wasn't wrong.
One thing you can say about Kamasi Washington's music, whether in 4/4 time or, as he claimed for "Psalmnist," 41/8: It always breathes. Beneath the lofty arches of Disney Hall, though, it tended to float away. Even cinematic jazz cooks best with a lid on it.
Trumpeter Ron McCurdy's quartet opened, accompanying McCurdy's recitation of black touchstone Langston Hughes' epic poem "Ask Your Mama" with serviceably swinging jazz/blues while sepia photos of black icons and Depression-era street life were projected behind. McCurdy's cultured enunciation undercut the words' often raunchy humor, and the presentation came off like a soundtracked lecture. Not bad, though, as lectures go.