Kamasi Washington has so charmed and befuddled music writers that some rely on the word “celebrity” to describe him. And a celebrity is rare thing in the tiny jazz world.
Named for the capital of Ashanti, the West African pre-colonial kingdom that is now Ghana, Washington hasn’t won a Grammy yet, but he’s taken the scene by storm in the last 18 months. He won DownBeat’s Jazz Artist of the Year for 2016. Rolling Stone called him “the most audacious player in a movement transforming the electric flurry of Seventies fusion jazz into something bold, lush and new” and the New York Times said his music was “uncategorizable” – in a good way.
Washington performs in Portland on Thursday at the Roseland Theater, which holds 1,400 people, most in standing-room ‘‘seats” (the balcony is sold out). As of this writing, there was some standing room left.
The celebrity stuff, he said from his home in Los Angeles earlier this week, hasn’t quite sunk in. Sure, he’s a well-known figure on the LA scene; he’s been playing music since high school, and his core band, The Next Step, is easily recognized in southern California. He’s toured with Snoop Dogg, worked with the late bandleader Gerald Wilson, the great pianist McCoy Tyner (who played in the classic quartet led by the musician who most inspired Washington’s spiritual approach to jazz, John Coltrane) and the late trumpet titan Freddie Hubbard, and arranged songs for Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy-winning album To Pimp a Butterfly.
Even so, the saxophonist’s circle has widened considerably since his almost-three-hour, three-CD album The Epic came out in mid-2015. Featuring 17 songs culled from 45, almost all arranged and composed by Washington, The Epic is a long narrative music poem about Washington’s life, with tributes to his grandmother, to Malcolm X, to friends. It’s “about who I am,” he explains. “My father’s generation lived their life in music but never made a true representation of who they are.”
The Epic has strains of Debussy, ragtime, straight-ahead jazz, fusion, soul, hip-hop, Bach, bebop, gamelan, gospel, rap, Star Wars, otherworldliness – you name it. It is genre-less and all genres.
“It doesn’t fit into one place (or genre), but it brings people together,” said Washington, 35, who studied Ethnomusicology at UCLA.
The Epic landed on a number of 2015’s best-of albums lists, including those of National Public Radio, Pitchfork and the Guardian. It debuted as No. 1 on iTunes Jazz charts in the United States, Canada, Russia, Australia and the United Kingdom. This year it won the 2016 American Music Prize for best debut album.
With violins, cellos and a 15-voice choir, along with the usual jazz instruments and two drum kits, the music is fit for a new-wave big band. The concert won’t be all about Washington; his bass player Miles Mosley has a CD in the pipeline, so expect to hear work other than The Epic. And instead of bringing strings and a full chorus – the collective band that performed on the CD – he’ll keep the Portland show “small” with two drummers, three horns, a pianist, a bassist and one singer. His father, Rickey Washington, also a saxophonist, will be among them.
Rickey, or “Pops” as Kamasi calls him, taught and played music throughout Los Angeles when Kamasi was a kid. At 12, Kamasi was playing the clarinet and itching to switch to sax. To make his son prove his musical commitment, Rickey challenged him to sing a Charlie Parker tune, and he did. When a little later, Kamasi picked up his father’s saxophone (“he left it out by mistake”) and out poured a Wayne Shorter tune, note for perfect note. He knew he’d found his horn, his musical partner.
“My dad didn’t want me to play the saxophone unless I was really serious about music,” Kamasi says. “You can play music as a hobby or pursue it fiercely. He wanted to make sure I was serious.”
His doggedness, determination and self-discipline won his father’s support. Kamasi then joined a band in his uncle’s church. It was then, and a few years later when he became immersed in John Coltrane’s work, that he understood that music came from “a spiritual place,” he says. “Music speaks to us on that level, and Coltrane realized that. I’m reaching for that spiritual connection. I’m trying to get to the other side of our consciousness. I’m trying to tap into that.”