KAMASI WASHINGTON'S NAME may be new to some, but the 34-year-old tenor sax player and bandleader has been part of the Los Angeles music scene for years. His résumé is impressive: He's played with notable jazz musicians like Harvey Mason and Gerald Wilson, as well as hip-hop and electronic artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus.
It's no wonder Washington's latest full-length—a 172-minute triple-LP aptly titled The Epic—has caught the attention of respected jazz publications, appointed tastemakers at Pitchfork, and everyone in between. Let's be clear: This is a jazz record through and through. The fact that it's hit such a wide swath of listeners makes it all the more impressive.
Washington attacks his instrument like John Coltrane, and his music dips into the experimental spiritualism of Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler. He avoids a hamfisted fusion with other styles, which can often be the death knell of otherwise talented jazz innovators. Although Washington acknowledges that he was raised on hip-hop while growing up in Southern California, he refuses to shoehorn those influences into the music. "I was so starved for jazz that when I got to write my own music and do my own gig, I wanted it to be that," he explains. "My influences are still in there, but they're subtle."
Washington grew up in a musical family in Inglewood, where he still lives. He was a hip-hop kid with an open mind. Family and friends—many of whom are now his bandmates—were constantly bombarding him with music. It wasn't until Washington was nine or 10 that he says he connected with jazz on a personal level. "I had a cousin that I looked up to that gave me an Art Blakey/Lee Morgan mixtape," he says. "I was really into NWA at that point in my life, and somehow Art Blakey reminded me of NWA—something about it; I loved the groove of it."
Washington put out a few independent releases before he began picking up gigs with other artists—most notably, he's all over Kendrick Lamar's excellent new album To Pimp a Butterfly. That collaboration has undoubtedly nudged Washington toward more ears, but it hasn't altered his route. "I want to make music that interests me first," he says, adding that he had a backlog of songs from as far back as 2011 that he was hell-bent on recording before they were lost. He says it was never his intention to bring jazz to the masses. But even if it's fleeting, Washington has made jazz cool again.
Washington and his fellow musicians worked on The Epic over the course of three months. The group includes bassist Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner (who's also played with Lamar and Flying Lotus, and will be performing at Pickathon this weekend) and his brother, drummer Ronald Bruner Jr., as well as trombonist Ryan Porter—the same kids Washington grew up with in Inglewood. Washington has repeatedly stated the importance of connecting with players. "There's another level to the connection," he says, adding that these were the people who gave him his first Stanley Clarke and Ornette Coleman records. "We shaped each other musically as well."
The connective tissue between the players not only shapes The Epic, but makes it a truly amazing piece of work, an album that pushes the boundaries of jazz in the most respectful ways.
Washington says he and his band are playing better than ever. They're not only pushing jazz in exciting directions, they're already taking their own material to new places. "You come to the live shows and you kind of hear how we're playing the songs on The Epic now," Washington says. "We just move more fluidly than we moved when we were making The Epic. I feel like I'm more me than I've ever been."