Despite all the hosannas he’s garnered up to this point – being hailed as a primary architect of a West Coast jazz revival, featured in the Whitney Museum’s prestigious Biennial and playing to thousands at Coachella – Kamasi Washington, 37, doesn’t see himself as the guy. Sure, he was an integral part of Kendrick Lamar’s last two albums (arranging strings and playing tenor sax on To Pimp a Butterfly and Damn.), and yeah, his strain of spiritual jazz helped rejuvenate the genre. But to hear him tell it, he’s merely living in the moment. “I’m a messenger,” he says simply. “So now that people are listening, I see it as an opportunity to offer more messages.”
It took a long time for him to make it to this point. As a budding musician, Washington and his friends would practice in his parents’ garage in Inglewood, in a small space called “The Shack,” not far from the LAX landing strip. There, he and the West Coast Get Down – an outstanding collective of musicians that included virtuoso bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, trombonist Ryan Porter, and pianist Cameron Graves – would work in cramped conditions and sweltering heat, cultivating their vision of the future.
Washington supported himself a touring musician – spending several years in the bands of Snoop Dogg, Chaka Khan and others – but he and the West Coast Get Down focused on jazz at a time when it wasn’t popular in mainstream music, when it was considered archaic and relegated to smaller clubs. They crew kept at it, even as the world outside the Shack spiraled out of control.
In 2015, Washington released his debut album, The Epic, an explosive three-hour set that touched on decades of tradition — from gospel and big-band jazz to funk — and fused the skronking 1960s psychedelic essence of Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra and John Coltrane with the feel-good sounds of Seventies fusion, the last time jazz connected with a mainstream audience. The Epic arrived two months after Lamar’s Butterfly, at a time of intense racial struggle in the United States, and its themes of peace and unity were especially resonant for black Americans. Washington’s record was meant to help heal a community still grieving the deaths of unarmed black males at the hands of law enforcement. Two years later – on 2017’s Harmony of Difference, which debuted at the Whitney Biennial – Washington explored counterpoint, with versions of the same melody appearing in each of the EP’s six songs. “My hope is that witnessing the beautiful harmony created by merging different musical melodies will help people realize the beauty in our own differences,” he said in a statement at the time. The new material that he’s been working on – a new LP, Heaven and Earth, is due out in June – marries the big-band aesthetics of The Epic and Harmony of Difference with the sort of darker, spacier tones heard on landmark works of exploration like Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity or Miles Davis’ Live-Evil.
To that end, Washington’s music never addresses the social climate head on; it’s shaded by world events but doesn’t wallow in them. “They affect me deeply, but I try not to let it consume me,” he says. “Someone like Donald Trump can’t control the way I show love to my brother. He can’t control the way I feel about my neighbors. I’m trying to make the music bigger than the politics. If you get caught up in the day-to-day, you’ll get lost in that.”
Washington’s art seeks a higher vibration, beyond the despair and provocative tweets. As people separate themselves along racial and political lines, Washington wants you to see the good in humanity, the childlike innocence buried beneath the callus of pain and distrust. His approach is heard on cathartic songs like “The Rhythm Changes” and the volcanic “Askim.” It’s in the majestic swing of “Humility” and the kaleidoscopic “Truth.” Songs like those are why Washington is the most talked-about musician in mainstream jazz, and why—regardless of the abundant work he’s released so far—the composer is just getting started. “I feel like I’m musically free to do what I want,” Washington says. “I’m coming into a place where I’m saying what I want with my instrument.”