Around 8:30 p.m. Sunday, a line snaked from the door of Empire Control Room down half a block to the corner of Seventh and Red River streets. Kamasi Washington was playing the club’s garage stage, his first appearance in Austin since emerging as one the leading jazz innovators of his generation with his breathtaking 2015 release, "The Epic." Despite the cancellation of the South by Southwest Music Festival just days earlier, the show was sold out and a jubilant crowd packed to the front of the stage.
Fronting an ensemble that included two full drum kits, bass, keys, trombone and the haunting vocals of Patrice Quinn, the 39-year-old composer proved his mettle as a saxophonist and a bandleader, allowing ample solo time for each of his technically astounding collaborators and graciously acknowledging them multiple times throughout the night.
Like a second coming of Sun Ra for the hip-hop generation, Washington’s music feels simultaneously futuristic and retro. It’s densely structured without becoming too esoteric or inaccessible. As he led his ensemble through sprawling journey jams, the frenzied swell of sounds from flying fingers and complex polyrhythms provoked a whirling dervish of visceral emotion.
The group paid tribute to McCoy Tyner, who died on March 6, with a jaw dropping cover of the great jazz pianist’s "Passion Dance."
"He meant so much to everyone on this stage," Washington said, adding that the group was dedicating "every note we play tonight to him."
Washington was warm and conversational with the audience throughout the night. He has family in Texas, and he said that playing in the state felt like a homecoming.
He titled his 2017 EP, "Harmony of Difference," and as an introduction to that release’s masterwork, "Truth," he talked about the way harmony is dependent on different sounds coming together. This translates to his broader philosophy of life.
"Each of you, no matter what you look like, you're beautiful," he said, adding that "I don't need to be like you to love you and I love you."
Then his ensemble destroyed a live version of the truly mind-boggling composition that weaves five distinct melody lines into a rich tapestry of sound.
The ensemble closed the set, which clocked in at almost exactly 90 minutes, with a transcendent version of "Fists of Fury."
The entire evening reimagined jazz as ecstatic worship and explored the power of an artist’s voice. With Quinn, the vocalist, chanting the final song’s refrain, "Our time as victims is over/ We will no longer ask for justice/ Instead we will take our retribution," it was clear that for Washington and his crew, the celebration of love is also a revolutionary revival.