Kamasi Washington in Bali

Justin Jacobs on October 11, 2018
Kamasi Washington in Bali

A Saturday night on the lush, tropical honeymoon destination of Bali, Indonesia, means hordes of tanned, chic couples hitting the massive outdoor clubs that dot the island’s beach towns.

But those who wandered into Bali’s Potato Head Beach Club expecting the usual offering of an international house DJ got much, much more than they signed up for—experimental jazz titan Kamasi Washington was tearing through epic funk jams complete with two drummers and a band including his own father, flutist Rickey Washington, all while a full moon shone overhead and Bali’s famous surf crashed just behind the stage.

The resort island’s throngs of wandering partygoers, plus hundreds of expats, Balinese hipsters and Indonesian musicians, made Washington’s Bali stop surely the loosest of his summer tour: there were more coconuts on display than cocktails, and the stage was flanked by towering palm trees.

That said, when Washington walked onstage clad in a shimmering, regal golden robe, even those without a clue where they were knew to pay attention.

“I traveled a long way to be here, and I see a lot of different faces out there,” he said, his tenor saxophone dangling from his neck. “Diversity among people all over the world; it’s not something to be tolerated, it’s something to be celebrated.”

And with that, Washington and his band dove into a two-hour set of unrelentingly heavy jazz-fusion that writhed and sizzled. Washington’s rise has been driven by uncompromisingly complex compositions—most tunes on his latest, 2018’s double album Heaven and Earth, cracked nine minutes—and his musical flexibility (he’s collaborated with Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg and more). That blazing innovation was on full display in Bali, resulting in a fiery set that gave both the jazz heads and the fist-pumping clubbers exactly what they needed: stunning improvisation and down and dirty dance music in equal measure.

The band played bassist Miles Mosely’s own deep soul cut “Abraham,” with Washington introducing his low end master as, “playing bass unlike anyone on earth.” And as such, Mosely bowed and slapped his stand-up bass to create some earth-shaking noise, the band raving up to match him.

“Street Fighting Mas” slowed things down a bit, with its ascending vocal refrain and another lumbering bassline, providing Washington ample space to blaze through staccato melodies at the front and center.

There wasn’t much time for gentler vibes before Washington and crew turned up the heat again.

“I’m about to open up here on these two drummers I have onstage,” he laughed, “So just get ready.”

Heaven and Earth opener “Fists of Fury” hit Potato Head like a bomb, its driving march beat sparking with four hands providing the percussion. The outdoor setting and the churning waves wiped away a bit of the finesse that aficionados appreciate in Washington’s studio recordings, but the band countered by blasting the crowd with pure jazz energy.

When Washington and his band wrapped up, Potato Head wasted little time before house music was again pulsing through the sound system. But dozens of crowd members had already walked past the stage and onto the beach, a handful simply standing and looking at the waves, mesmerized. There was just no coming back.