Kamasi Washington works in large scale, and he makes no bones about it — a man who debuted with a three-CD, three-hour album called “The Epic” is not lacking in self-awareness. So even if his Saturday-night stage show at the Lincoln Theatre was stripped down — how could it not be? — from the 60-plus musicians on the L.A. tenor saxophonist’s latest album, “ Heaven and Earth,” to seven, it was indeed an epic of two hours and magnificent, passionate noise.
Washington’s playing is a mighty howl, even if it takes a while to work up to it. The opening “One of One,” for one, began with lyrical precision from Washington, trombonist Ryan Porter and (wordless) vocalist Patrice Quinn, handling the melody in unison. Porter gave a lovely, thoughtful and winding solo full of melodic ideas; Washington started out that way in his solo, too. As he soldiered on, though, he played less with melody, more with barrages of riff and beat. In the end, volley after volley of short-note lines came charging forth, neither melodic nor particularly worried about staying in key. But those things weren’t the point: The raw power and momentum were, and they whipped the sold-out crowd into a frenzy.
That was the basis of a pattern for the whole two hours. There would be beautiful, mellifluous stuff to start: Washington’s sturdy, immediately accessible compositions, whether the flowing meditation “The Rhythm Changes” or the declarative Afrobeat of “Fists of Fury.” Next, a lyrical or wordless chorus from Quinn, or glorious lines from Porter or keyboardist Brandon Coleman (who alternated between piano and Fender Rhodes electric) or even bassist Miles Mosley, who brandished a bow on three of the night’s seven selections. Then Washington would come in as the wrecking ball, swinging madly and bringing a fearsome amount of brute force. Improvising on “Truth,” he spent some time lobbing change-up funk grooves on a single note.
He wasn’t all muscle, of course. Before his monotone on “Truth,” he was the third in a sublime overlap of five written melodies, representing, he said, that “Diversity . . . is not something to be tolerated, it’s something to be celebrated.” Nor did Washington hog the spotlight. Mosley took center stage for a driving performance of his song “Abraham,” including a virtuoso bass performance, bowed and plucked, that lived in the territory between Charles Mingus and Bootsy Collins. What’s more, the band’s dual drummers, Ronald Bruner Jr. and Tony Austin, took part in a slaughter of an unaccompanied “drum conversation,” as Washington called it. There was never any doubt, though, that it was all done on Washington’s commanding, larger-than-life terms.