BBC Proms 2016 – Kamasi Washington and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Kamasi Washington (c) Mark Allan

Prom 61; Royal Albert Hall, 30 August 2016

You can listen to this Prom from its BBC broadcast here

Late night Proms at the Royal Albert Hall are usually special – and this one even more so. Kamasi Washington arrived to a great fanfare in 2015, firstly for his work as orchestrator and band leader on Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp A Butterfly, then latterly for his extraordinary triple album Epic, released to great acclaim on Ninja Tune.

Washington, while perhaps not earmarked as the future of jazz, is definitely a figure to whom audiences are turning. Some approach him from the hip hop direction, from Lamar or Snoop Dogg, while others with jazz more embedded in their listening recognise the influences of Sun Ra and John Coltrane. But how would all these elements blend with a 32-voice choir and the strings of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra?

Extremely well, as it turned out. It helps that Washington has a wonderful, almost beatific stage presence. He is a mixture of assertion and modesty, which suits his music too, for there were long, ecstatic phrases where the Royal Albert Hall itself seemed to be lifted from its foundations on a tide of good feeling. As the long phrases swelled from the ground up, supported by cellos, basses, the bass of Miles Mosley and the drums of Ronald Bruner Jr and Tony Austin, the treble instruments and assembled chorus were swept along on the good vibes.

That was certainly the case in Change of the Guard and The Next Step, while in The Magnificent 7 there was more of a soloistic approach, Washington’s band each invited to present their extraordinary virtuosity. Top of the pile were Mosley and pianist Brandon Coleman, both placed centre stage and forming a supple rhythmic base as well as a source of boundless musical enthusiasm.

However the praise for the effectiveness of the arrangements should also be directed at Jules Buckley, for whom this was a third appearance at this year’s Proms. Buckley is a master arranger, responsible for a lot of last year’s Ibiza Proms arranging but also this year taking on Quincy Jones and Jamie Cullum – each foils for the music of Washington, where he conducted the strings.

It also helps that Washington’s music is so well orchestrated, for although he allows his band solo time, in the quieter music things stripped back to allow the string orchestra room to be heard. Although they were swamped in the opener Change of the Guard there was plenty of room for the bittersweet cello lines of Henrietta, Our Hero to make a strong impact.

This was one of many high points in the concert, Washington introducing his father Rickey as they both paid homage to Kamasi’s grandmother in a song beautifully intoned by Patrice Quinn. There was a new piece, too, The Space Traveller’s Lullaby, which formed an effective mid-set interlude, stripping back to saxophone, trombone, voices and strings. Washington’s moving solo was backed by twinkling stars projected onto the backboard.

The music lingered long into the night. Some extraordinary phrases, both loud and quiet, issued from Washington’s saxophone, played with the utmost of care. His music has the power to move from tiny, quiet moments or through the massive, surging crests of the wave where all 80 performers were involved. Its wholly positive outlook won the day.

Ben Hogwood

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