Kamasi Washington is a Los Angeles-based saxophonist, composer, and bandleader who was branded the future of the new jazz on the arrival of his three-disc The Epic. While the term has been bandied about since the 1950s, what it refers to in his case is Washington’s diversity given his wide experience playing with artists of many disciplines. His sound draws few boundaries between modal and soul-jazz, funk, hip-hop, and electronic music.
He didn’t pick up a saxophone until he was 13 years old, but by that point, he’d already been playing several other instruments. That’s when he found his calling. Within a couple years, he was the lead tenor saxophonist at Hamilton High School Music Academy in his native Los Angeles. After graduation, he attended UCLA to study ethnomusicology. While enrolled at UCLA, he recorded a self-titled album with Young Jazz Giants, a quartet he had formed with Cameron Graves and brothers Ronald Bruner, Jr. and Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, released in 2004.
From that point on, Washington continually performed and recorded with an impressive variety of major artists across several genres, including Snoop Dogg, Raphael Saadiq, Gerald Wilson, McCoy Tyner, George Duke, and PJ Morton. He self-released a handful of his own albums from 2005 to 2008 while also performing and recording as one-third of Throttle Elevator Music. In 2014 alone, Washington demonstrated his tremendous range with appearances on Broken Bells’ After the Disco, Harvey Mason’s Chameleon, Stanley Clarke’s Up, and Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead!, among other albums that covered indie rock, contemporary and progressive jazz, and experimental electronic music.
The following year, Washington contributed to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and released The Epic on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label. An expansive triple album nearly three hours in duration, it involved the other three-fourths of Young Jazz Giants — by then part of his larger collective, alternately known as the Next Step and West Coast Get Down — and a string orchestra and choir conducted by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. A critical and commercial success, The Epic landed at number three on Billboard’s jazz chart. Washington toured the U.S., played dates in Europe and Japan, and continued session work with contributions to albums by Terrace Martin, Carlos Niño, John Legend, Run the Jewels, and Thundercat, all while continuing to tour. Washington debuted the six-song project at the Whitney Biennial in March along with a film by A.G. Rojas and artwork by Amani Washington. In early 2017, Washington premiered Harmony of Difference, an original six-movement suite, as part of the Whitney Biennial, and compiled that recording for a six-track, 13-minute EP — his first original music since The Epic two years earlier. Issued in September, Harmony of Difference explored the philosophical possibilities of counterpoint. Composed as a suite, it contains five separate movements and a sixth, “Truth,” as a finale that includes tenets and themes from its predecessors. Washington returned in 2018 with the full-length Heaven & Earth. The double album featured contributions from Thundercat, Patrice Quinn, and Miles Mosley, and the singles “Fists of Fury” and “The Space Travelers” were released in advance of the record. ~ Andy Kellman