Kamasi Washington conjures hearty tenor sax and lush string arrangements on Kendrick Lamar’s new hip-hop landmark To Pimp a Butterfly. But Washington’s solo debut—a three-CD jazz set titled The Epic—unspools a more ambitious achievement.
Washington, who’s also worked with Snoop Dogg, Lauryn Hill and Raphael Saadiq, says he didn’t intend to make a triple album—much less one boasting a 32-piece orchestra and a 20-person choir. Its scope developed after he enlisted eight fellow musicians from L.A. collective the West Coast Get Down to join him in the studio.
“We created our own little music sweatshop,” Washington says of daily sessions that lasted 16 hours. “They wanted to record too, so they went in on the cost and we booked a studio out for a whole month. We didn’t take any gigs or anything.”
They ended up recording 190 songs, 45 of them belonging to Washington, who reduced his tracks to 17 and then started on string and choir parts. “I was doing it late at night and would literally fall asleep in the studio with a pencil in my hand, and one night I had this crazy dream,” the saxophonist/composer says of a recurring dream about an aging gatekeeper who awaited young challengers.
That provided the storyline behind “Change of the Guard,” the 12-minute opening to The Epic, an expansive May release that spans Coltrane-esque sax eruptions, chill melodies closer to smooth jazz, hip-hop accents, choral swells and Afro-Latin polyrhythms. It’s a free-wheeling yet cohesive project, rounded out with a tribute to Malcolm X as well as a take on Debussy’s impressionistic classical piece Clair de Lune, managing to sound both avant-garde and accessible.
“Terms we put on the music are just an organizational tool—they shouldn’t affect the music,” says Washington, 34. “All these different styles aren’t disconnected. They’re totally connected. Snoop’s band was mostly jazz musicians.”
Experiences with Snoop Dogg changed his approach, Washington says. “Like what tone I used on the horn, frequencies. The groove had to sit exactly in a certain place, and it was all contingent.… I had to listen in this hyper-microscopic way. When I took that mentality over to jazz, it was like a whole new style of music opened to my consciousness.”
His comrades in the West Coast Get Down had similar grounding in non-jazz gigs, though they were schooled together from a young age. “We’ve all known each other since we were kids,” Washington says of bandmates such as upright bassist Miles Mosley, drummer Ronald Bruner Jr. and his brother Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, an electric bass virtuoso. “We were really focused, really dedicated. We didn’t go to parties or anything like that. We were just gigging and practicing eight or nine hours a day, then going to jam sessions and sneaking into clubs.”
Washington’s parents were both wind players and educators, though he was lured by hip-hop and gangs. “They were a reality of where I grew up, where all of us grew up,” the Inglewood native says. The turning point came at about age 11 when an older cousin gave him a tape with jazz great Art Blakey. “I was into N.W.A. at that point, and I don’t know if Blakey reminded me of [Dr.] Dre’s production, but I just liked it. It got me into music at a higher level.”
Another jazz friend from his youth, alto saxophonist Terrace Martin, became a hip-hop producer who not only gave Washington his shot with Snoop Dogg but pulled him into secretive sessions for Lamar’s album after hearing The Epic.
“Kendrick didn’t inhibit the musicians he worked with,” Washington says. “He let us put our whole spirit, our whole essence, into the music, which is rare.… It kind of dispelled this myth that people can’t understand highly dense music.”
That kind of spirit infuses The Epic as well as a tour that hits the Sinclair on Aug. 20. Washington’s live septet will include drummers Bruner and Tony Austin, bassist Mosley, trombonist Ryan Porter and singer Patrice Quinn, all from the album. “When it’s a smaller band,” the saxophonist says, “you get more of each person.”