Kamasi Washington: next jazz’s superstar

It’s early days, but Kamasi Washington could be the biggest thing to hit jazz for years, decades even. The 34-year-old Californian saxophonist, composer, and bandleader has succeeded in making experimental improvised music that sounds both contemporary and relevant – and, crucially, attractive to younger listeners – without short-changing its essential jazziness. It helps that Washington’s back-story has popular appeal: he played and arranged on the rapper Kendrick Lamar’s recent million-selling album To Pimp A Butterfly; one of his first gigs, he says, was playing in Snoop Dogg’s band the Snoopadelics, and he’s toured with Raphael Saadiq and Lauryn Hill.

But while Washington and the other members of his coalition of musicians, The West Coast Get Down, turned to hip-hop and R&B to make their names and make a living, they’ve been playing jazz together since they were children in the schools and community projects of South Central LA. “It was all we did, all day, every day”, he says when I talked to him at a hotel in Rotterdam, on the eve of the band’s European tour, which will include a sold-out performance at the Barbican for the London Jazz Festival this week. “We learned more from each other than we learned from anyone else.”

In person Kamasi Washington is a large, slightly shambling figure in loose-fitting clothes, his grown-out hair and straggly goatee less priestly-looking than on his photograph for the cover of The Epic, his debut album as a leader, which he released in June. Washington thinks big, too: lasting 172 minutes over three CDs or six sides of vinyl, The Epic is a remarkable magnum opus. Linking the “spiritual jazz” pioneered by John and Alice Coltrane in the Civil Rights years, to the musical and social contexts of the USA today, it uses a massive cast, including a 32-piece orchestra and a 20-voice choir alongside his own 10-piece band the Next Step, to create an intensely-worked suite that continually surprises through whooshing Walt Disney strings, ethereal voices and samples of Malcolm X.

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