It was one of the great surprises in recent jazz history. A sprawling, three-hour debut album, aptly titled The Epic — replete with long songs in the earnest tradition of 1970s soul-jazz and the Black Arts movement — became a huge hit in 2015. It propelled the artist onto stages where jazz is seldom heard, and launched speculation that Kamasi Washington, the group’s Afro-ed, dashiki-clad saxophonist and bandleader, might be the music’s new savior.
Rumors of the death of jazz are always exaggerated, but with appearances in 2016 at the Bonnaroo, Glastonbury, and Pitchfork festivals (among others), Washington and his close-knit contingent of Los Angeles-raised bandmates have proven quite the remarkable sign of life. In further confirmation that sincere, spiritual jazz has market potential too, Washington headlines Brooklyn Bowl on December 30 and 31, supplanting the big Williamsburg venue’s past indie-rock New Year’s fare (last year, Deer Tick).
For Lucas Sacks, the venue’s booker, the Kamasi effect is real. “Yes,” Sacks says emphatically. “How often do you see a jazz act play big festivals? It’s working for him, and he’s going to help whether he wants to be the poster child or not. He’s going to have a lot of effect in the next couple of years on mainstreaming jazz. Other artists are going to use him as a case study to see how he broke through.”
Ask Washington himself, and he says the success of The Epic still takes him aback – just a little. “I thought it had the potential – like, most people who listened to it would like it,” Washington says. “But I was unsure how many people would give it a chance.”
The album was long in the works, recorded during a month-long session in late 2011 and released on Brainfeeder, the label of L.A. producer Flying Lotus. The unorthodox outlet spoke to Washington’s ties with the L.A. electronic and hip-hop community, a creative crowd that includes bassist Thundercat (whose brother Ronald Bruner Jr. plays drums on The Epic) and Kendrick Lamar, who featured Washington in the band for his album, To Pimp A Butterfly.
“You end up working a lot, making music for other people, and it was beautiful,” Washington says of moving from Lamar’s record and other projects to leader of his own recognized jazz outfit. “But now I’m in a position where I get to put all my energy toward making my own music. And that’s an interesting place.”
Lately, Washington’s touring has slowed and he has begun to record music for an upcoming, as yet unscheduled, new album. The sound is evolving, he says, in ways the Brooklyn Bowl crowd will get the chance to taste. “It’s more contrapuntal, a bit more rhythmic. It’s still who I am, I try not to force the music in any one direction, but I find in what I’m writing there’s a lot of countermelodies. We’re playing the music from The Epic differently too, so it’s like I have new music that really fits the way we play now.”
Behind the rise of Washington and friends, the core of whom form a collective known as the West Coast Get Down, are many factors: the high level of craft, often passed down from musician parents; the hip-hop friendships and networks; a measure of serendipity. But just as important has been patience. “I’ve always known that we’ve got some special music,” says keyboardist Brandon Coleman. “And I just knew it was mostly about time. We’re finally happy, if anything, that people can decipher what we’re saying now.”
In 2017, Washington will return his friends’ favor, appearing on their own records – new releases are on deck from Bruner, Coleman, bassist Miles Mosley, and pianist Cameron Graves. With success and side-projects, sessions and tours have become harder to organize, but the sense of a team remains.
“The whole movement is getting attention now because of people like Kamasi,” says Sacks. “And they’ve all got each other’s back.” The West Coast Get Down merges into a broader scene of artists at the crossroads of jazz and, in one form or another, soul and electronic projects: for instance pianist Robert Glasper (with his Black Radio and other crossover projects) and Terrace Martin, a jazz multi-instrumentalist who has also produced for Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg. (There’s a good chance that guests from any of these worlds may make cameos during Washington’s Brooklyn Bowl gigs.)
Coleman says a year and a half touring The Epic confirms that, in the U.S., a new audience is coming to jazz. (In Europe, he says, crowds are always multi-generational.) Here, many who come chat after shows are college-aged, and often don’t recognize the names he gives them when they ask him about his influences or who they should hear. “They’re like, ‘Who’s Frank Zappa? Who’s Bill Evans?,’” Coleman says. “They have no idea who these people are – so we are those new people, almost, in a re-invented way.”
For Washington, icon status can wait: he is most concerned at the moment with making his new album, and with developing a new piece, likely with a visual component, for the upcoming Whitney Biennial, where he is an invited artist. The political turbulence of the current period is not lost on him either. “I’m trying to figure out what my thoughts are,” Washington says. “There’s so much going on in the world, so many messages to send out. At the same time, I like to let the music lead the charge.”
At: Brooklyn Bowl, December 30 and 31
Tickets: $40 for the 30th, $65-75 for 31st
Info: 718-963-3369, brooklynbowl.com