An Inglewood Saxophonist Might Have Made the Best Jazz Record of the Year

Kamasi Washington
Kamasi Washington
Courtesy of the artist

[An L.A. native, L.A. Weekly columnist Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com, follow him on Twitter and also check out his archives.]

The idea is simple: Listen to more jazz. And if you heed that advice, you need to listen to more Kamasi Washington, the South Central– and Inglewood-raised saxophonist who might have made the best modern jazz record of the year.

Within L.A.’s insular jazz scene, Washington is no secret. He’s toured with Snoop Dogg, Lauryn Hill and Raphael Saadiq and collaborated closely with his label boss, Flying Lotus. His mentors include Gerald Wilson and venerable jazz educator Reggie Andrews.

Whether at the Blue Whale or Hollywood’s Piano Bar, Washington’s interstellar solos and telescopic imagination are widely revered.

But until about a month ago, the broader music world barely knew his name.

Things changed with the twin anvils of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Washington’s brilliant Brainfeeder debut, The Epic. Washington’s tenor sax and string arrangements now can be heard all over the year’s most acclaimed rap album.

“We’d bring [Lamar] tracks, he’d hear the hook and just start spouting out these crazy verses,” Washington says, describing the TPAB sessions. “He’s a brilliant, dedicated and curious person who would sit around for hours on the couch, fishing around for lyrics and watching us write jazz parts.”

To be released next week, The Epic lives up to its lofty title as a three-volume, cosmic odyssey that sustains the spirit of John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and Ethiopian jazz.

“I started off trying to shrink 45 songs onto one disc, but as I listened to them I kept having the same crazy dream,” Washington, 34, says in the garage shed–turned–practice space behind his Inglewood home — filled with records, books, electrical cords, a piano and a drum kit. He is sturdily built, wearing a red and blue button-up, black pants and dangling medallion.

“It was this weird story about this old warrior living on a hill, a guardian to the gates of a city,” he continues. “The villagers at the bottom constantly train to challenge him, and I had the same dream six times. The full album played every time — every song had a different scene. I took it as a sign to keep everything.”

What could seem indulgent instead seems generous. Washington’s opus manufactures its own oxygen; it’s independent of both conservative jazz strictures and the self-conscious urge to view all fusion as inherently progressive. It’s highly modern without being futuristic, creative and improvised but bearing the hallmark of meticulous arrangement.

It’s what you’d expect from someone destined to become a jazz Jedi. The straight-A son of a venerable sax player and flautist mother, Washington graduated from Hamilton High’s vaunted music program and won an academic and music scholarship to UCLA. He toured with Snoop Dogg before finishing college.

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“I should write a book on how to talk your professor into being OK with you missing half the quarter,” he jokes.

The players on The Epic are people with whom he’s collaborated for much of his life, including labelmate and longtime co-conspirator Thundercat.

Throughout 172 chimerical minutes, Washington leads a 32-piece orchestra and a 20-person choir. He transforms himself from virtuosic sideman to visionary bandleader — the equivalent of Wayne Shorter stepping out from Miles Davis’ second quintet to spearhead Weather Report.

“For a long time, we did a lot of high-profile gigs and other musicians knew about us, but most people just ignored our music,” Washington says. “We knew how good it was, and how much it resonated with people in L.A. But records from Kendrick and Flying Lotus and Thundercat and hopefully mine can open doors for jazz again. We’re trying to make music with spirit behind it, with sincerity, freedom and no restrictions.”

The album release event for Kamasi Washington's The Epic takes place Monday, May 4, at the Regent Theater in downtown L.A. More info.


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