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Kamasi Washington pushes beyond the borders of jazz 

Saxophonist is riding high on two of the year's best album releases

Kamasi Washington and the Next Step.
  • Kamasi Washington and the Next Step.

For years, Kamasi Washington was involved in music's version of the corporate gig. He was a member of the backing band for some big names in the music biz — Snoop Dogg, Lauryn Hill, Raphael Saadiq, Chaka Khan, Herbie Hancock, Nas — but while jobs like that pay the bills, they do little for creative freedom. So, outside of touring around the world with those acts, he's been a part of L.A.'s burgeoning jazz scene as a member of a collective of musicians called the West Coast Get Down.

Of course, even the term jazz is subjective. Listen to Washington's debut album, The Epic, and you'll find it pushes beyond the borders of what many think of with the genre. Washington himself isn't worried about how people define it though. If you're afraid of the jazz label, ignore the term — call it jazz, call it music, call it whatever you'd like.

"Words don't dicate the music," Washington says. "People can look at it that a jazz band is coming (to town) or do you look at it as some dope music is coming? You can hear how it connects to so many other things and then say, 'Oh yeah, this is jazz.'"

Regardless of any labels, Washington is finally hitting the road with his seven-piece band, the Next Step, in support of The Epic, an album that countless critics are already calling one of the year's best. As his first tour kicks off — including an Aug. 6 show at the Chop Shop, 2015 is shaping up to be a great year for the sax player. Washington is also featured on another of the year's best album contenders, Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly.

Born and raised in the Los Angeles area where he still lives, Washington grew up the son of musical parents. While he's been playing jazz around the L.A. area for years, he's only left town to play other people's music. The musicians in his own band, along with those on the album and current tour, are part of the West Coast Get Down collective. And while Washington's style of jazz is nothing new to him, he can't wait for more people to hear it.

"For years, my friends and I have been making music and taking it to different places in L.A.," Washington, 34, says. "For nearly 10 years, we've been saying to ourselves, 'If we could just get this out, people would love this.' We knew if people heard it, it would have an impact. People who haven't heard the way we play — jazz fans and non-jazz fans alike — we could see the impact that it had. It's gotten to people in a way that I couldn't imagine."

The crew's music started getting into the public's ear last year with the critically acclaimed album You're Dead! by Flying Lotus featuring much of the West Coast Get Down in various forms. For Washington, that was the first sign that people were ready to hear his music outside of the L.A. area.

Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly has certainly helped, as well. Originally scheduled to work on just one song, Washington ended up on much more. He and his cohorts were able to write and record in their own musical style and then Lamar shaped it to what he wanted.

Which leads us to The Epic. It isn't an easy listen, but that hasn't mattered to most people who hear it. The three-disc, 175-minute album certainly lives up to its name. While Washington knows it's a lot to take in, he felt that it was one story to tell, that's best listened to as one piece.

"I didn't intend for it to be three hours long," Washington says. "I was working on the album and I started having this crazy dream that turned into a storyline that kind of got intertwined with all the songs that are on the album. By the time I was done with the album, all the songs felt like they were one thing. To break them up, would kind of ruin them, in a way. So, it was like a family that I couldn't disconnect."

Kamasi Washington
  • Kamasi Washington

The Epic starts with "Change of the Guard," giving listeners a starter pack of sorts of the skills Washington and his group have. From the opening piano notes that lead into a salvo of horns and choral "aahs" to frantic, skronky sax exploration at the end, it's 12 minutes that start the album off right. From there, the listener is on an extensive journey slow and fast, driven and reserved.

Recorded over the course of one month back in 2011, The Epic is not the only product of sessions that involved 10 musicians. Eight albums were finished in the studio — and Washington hopes they'll all see the light of day soon.

"The guys I'm touring with, they all did records as well," Washington says. "The music is so different. People won't believe we recorded all this at the same place at the same time. It'll be cool to get those albums out. I'm going to play some of that music when I'm on the road so people get the scope of who we are."

So, attendees of his concerts will hear his bandmates' music and also experience a bit of freedom that's contained within. While he says he works from a setlist, his approach is loose at best. Washington says he listens to what the other people in his band are doing, to figure out where they're going in a song. Much of The Epic was recorded in the same way.

"There were arrangements around what we did, but the energy and the feel and the vibe of what the record is is actually freeform," Washington says. "I make setlists and plans, but I don't stick to them. I have ideas — 'I want this person to solo on that song' — but the way we are, the music ends up moving in its own way."

Washington says he and his bandmates have grown up playing in that loosely defined structure, so it's nothing new to them. They let the music dictate the mood and discover where the songs are going at the same time as the listener — which isn't easy.

"It's hard when one of my guys can't do a show — to find someone who can actually play with us," Washington says. "You have to have a free and fearless approach to playing where you really don't know what's going to happen next and you're cool with it. That's just how we play. It's super free. It's not forced and there's no anxiety with people not knowing what's going to happen or how it's going to happen or how fast or slow it's gonna be."

It's that sense of freedom that will likely win over fans of jam bands, though Washington's music has so much depth and breadth that it's hard to define it simply as jazz or by one genre label.

We are all byproducts of the world around us. So, you can listen to The Epic and quickly hear elements from Washington's influences. There's John Coltrane and Miles Davis in there as much as P-Funk and Dr. Dre as much as Igor Stravinsky and Flying Lotus.

While Washington didn't get to express himself musically while touring with popular artists, he did absorb something from each one that he's been able to incorporate into his own life.

"When I was playing with Snoop, the perception of groove and phrasing was hyper-intense. You had to listen on a deeper level so you could play on the exact same part of the beat. We can move freely in our band because I'm listening to what other people are playing," Washington says. "Raphael Saadiq would change his setlist around and throw in new songs and that taught me that because you have a plan, doesn't mean you have to stick to the plan. Lauryn Hill would have us learn new songs and arrangements every day, so that helped me to process new music really fast. Sometimes band members would bring in music to play that night and we'd learn it and play it. It's an influence by experience."

Washington says the album is a good representation of who he is as an artist, though most of the material was written in 2011 and his style has broadened even more since then. That's another reason he didn't want to split the CD into parts. If he had done that, he wouldn't have been able to work on new material until all of it had been released. Washington says he's got a backlog of hundreds of songs that he's itching to get out.

"There's stuff I've been doing since age 11 that isn't on there, but [The Epic] is a good chunk of who I am," he says. "It's everything that can fit into one project."

You'll probably get a glimpse of all of it when Washington steps on stage. He and his band are finally getting their sound out of L.A. and you can see the excitement in his Facebook posts and comments whenever he talks about hitting the road.

"We're super excited," he says. "Will people show up? We'll play our music regardless. When we play music, we get caught up in it. I hope people show up and check it out — I think they'll be in store for a cool experience."

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