On “u,” the sixth track on Kendrick Lamar's genre-blurring hip-hop opus To Pimp a Butterfly, the sound of a tenor saxophone floats beneath the Compton emcee's intense, almost free-associative lyrics. It's improvisational in approach, but the tenor saxophone sound is ultimately a much gentler and more harmonious one than many of the other chaotic, almost free-jazz like elements happening on the track.
The man playing that saxophone, Kamasi Washington, was a crucial supporting player in the making of that album, having also arranged all of the strings that appear on To Pimp a Butterfly. Washington has played an important role in performances by other major artists as well, having performed with jazz greats such as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, as well as hip-hop icons such as Snoop Dogg, Lauryn Hill and Nas. Washington is a versatile performer, tackling many different styles, and in a phone interview, the Los Angeles jazz bandleader says every collaboration he's involved with leaves an impact on how he approaches music.
“I look at it almost like, when I'm making my music, I'm kind of teaching. And when I'm playing someone else's music, I'm learning,” he says. “I try to immerse myself in their processes. Everyone has a unique experience, but at the same time, all of our experiences connect. So, in immersing myself in someone else's music...it gives my music more depth every time I do it. Every time I play with someone and dig into what they're doing, when I go back and play my own music, it's not like it changes what I do, but it gives me a deeper understanding of what I do.”
After performing alongside an impressive list of other musicians, and issuing several self-released limited-press recordings, Kamasi Washington released his triple-disc debut, The Epic, in May via Brainfeeder. True to its name, The Epic is a nearly 180-minute opus of cosmic, spiritual jazz with massive arrangements and an eclectic sonic makeup. Both as a saxophone player and a visionary, he's been compared to greats such as John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, though the sound he crafts on the triple-album is uniquely his own. He leads his band against an otherworldly choir in “Change of the Guard,” eases into a lush Latin funk groove on “Re Run Home,” and guides a soulful, yet melancholy ballad on “Clair de Lune.”
There's a lot of music to digest, most of it without any actual lyrics, so it's easy to overlook that The Epic is—like a literal epic—really a long story told through 17 powerful avant garde jazz tracks. As described on the Brainfeeder website, the tale involves an old man perched on a mountain summit, surveying a dojo where he observes young students that will one day become his challengers—if he lives long enough for them to do so.
Kamasi Washington plays September 13 at Soda Bar
If you missed all that in the course of the album, that's OK—The Epic is just an abstract representation of that narrative, after all. But it was so essential to the creation of the record, Washington says, that he couldn't allow himself to release these songs in a more digestible package.
“The concept was kind of ever-changing,” he says. “These 17 songs stood out as being tied together as an interesting way. I was kind of having this recurring dream that interweaves all the songs together in a story. In the end, what made me keep the album one thing—and not editing it down to a single disc, or putting out three different albums at three different times—is the story. If I broke up the album, I'd break up the story. That's kind of why I titled it The Epic—the story is what made it what it is.”
Juxtaposing The Epic—a sprawling journey into lushly arranged avant garde jazz—against some of the work that Washington has done with R&B and hip-hop artists, there are some glaring, obvious differences between the two. But Washington is quick to note that the gap between hip hop and jazz is not as vast as it might seem on the surface, and more adventurous records like To Pimp a Butterfly paint a clearer picture of the relationship between the two genres.
“They're different branches from the same tree,” he says. “If you look at hip-hop with freestyling and all that, there's a definite improvisational element. The repurposing of music that hip-hop has with sampling, jazz was doing it with playing standards, like Broadway show tunes, and changing it up. There's a big connection, and it's always been there. It's been there throughout the history of hip-hop.”
The ability to use music to help bolster these connections is part of why Washington does what he does. He plays jazz; this much isn't in dispute. But jazz doesn't have to be on an island of its own, separate from pop music, and vice versa. Music isn't just entertainment—or a job—for Washington. It's an opportunity for learning and growth.
“People nowadays are so aware of so many different things. But not everyone's taking advantage of that,” he says. “It's like the world has been in a dark room throughout history, but now the lights are on, but everyone's eyes are closed. The world is more at your fingertips than it's ever been—ignorance should be at an all time low, because it's so easy to learn. I want people to just wake up, open their eyes, and become aware.”