To hear The Epic is to understand Kamasi Washington. “It’s the story of my life,” he summarizes while driving through his home city of Los Angeles, racing to prepare for the upcoming East Coast leg of his tour. Released on May 5, The Epic is a vast introduction into the tenor saxophone player’s existence with its seventeen-track, 172-minute span that recalls the free jazz of John Coltrane and classic Seventies stylings of Stevie Wonder with its angelic choir arrangements. Yet the album’s narrative isn’t confined to its fusion of jazz — rather, it exists in the hands of the people who performed it.
“We’ve been playing like this since we were kids in high school. It’s a sound we’ve been working on for a long time,” explains Washington regarding his revolving ten-piece band the Next Step. “It’s new but it’s not the newest incarnation of what we are. It’s a moving, growing, changing thing, and it started back then.”
Since he was two years young, Washington, now 34, has been recruiting members and refining the sound of the outfit. He often tells the story about his third birthday when future band member Ronald Bruner, Jr. hopped on Washington’s new drum set, vexing him in the process. Bruner’s younger brother Stephen – known today as the revered bassist Thundercat – would soon join, and the Bruner brothers met future Next Step members Brandon Coleman and Tony Austin while attending middle school. By the time he began his scholarship to study ethnomusicology at UCLA, Washington was playing with trombonist Ryan Porter, bassist Miles Mosley, and vocalist Patrice Quinn – all of whom continue to perform in the Next Step.
“We’ve been cultivating [this] our whole life. It’s definitely grown, been retuned and readjusted, but it is something that we’ve been doing for a long time,” Washington says. “When we were in the studio recording The Epic, there was no one in there exerting any type of influence outside of us.”
Throughout the month of December 2011, Washington and the Next Step collaborated and recorded over 190 songs, or three terabytes worth of music. “It wasn’t all for me,” he clarifies. “We went to the studio and worked on eight different projects. We worked on everybody’s stuff at the same time [but] my album is just the first one to come out.” He notes that Ronald Bruner, Jr. has a record that’s ready to be released with Mosley and Coleman albums on the way.
The Epic didn’t see its release until three years after it was recorded but this wasn’t done with intent. Though Washington had been plenty busy with his contributions to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead!, two records recognized for their hugely progressive advancements in both hip-hop and EDM, the release of his solo debut was suspended in delays caused by his relentless working schedule.
“I can’t tell you how hard it was to wait for 2015 to put it out,” he admits. “It definitely had to come out this year. It think I have to give the Universe or God or somebody a little bit of an apology because I was definitely yelling at the sky for the album to come out.”
These upcoming back-to-back dates at the Blue Note are something of a dream for Washington, who has previously performed in New York but as support for acts like Gerald Wilson, Snoop Dogg, and Ms. Lauryn Hill. Playing gigs such as the Blue Note under his own name with a band that originated in his teenage years is a cultivation of a style he’s spent a lifetime fine-tuning.
“We couldn’t understand why our sound – which seems to work so well for everyone else – could never get recognized in and of itself,” Washington wonders. “We use the sound for Snoop, use it for Lauryn Hill, use it for Pharrell – everyone could use it except us! It was in the pot marinating, getting ready to put it out.”
Joining him on this tour is the seventeen-year-old piano prodigy Jamael Dean who’ll be making his East Coast debut. “He’s been lighting it up and it’s kind of tripping me out seeing this little kid,” says Washington. “It kind of reminds me of us when we were that age.”
In the past twelve months Washington has collaborated with an EDM revolutionary and the current king of hip-hop, helping to magnify their landmark albums and expansive sound. The Epic has begun to introduce a new generation to jazz and his tour will cover the country and major parts of Europe lasting until the end of the year. Yet even after achieving all these feats, Washington says he’s nowhere close to letting up.
“I definitely have ideas for my next record, and I have songs that I’m really excited to let people hear,” he says. “People are going to kind of hear it on this tour; they’ll hear the direction this music is going. I’m not trying to recreate the album in the live shows. The way we play it, the music changes every night – it changes within the night. There’s so much music that isn’t there; there’s so much music to do that I’m definitely not done.”
Kamasi Washington will perform at the Blue Note on August 24 and August 25 at 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. both nights. For more information click here.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 21, 2015