Kamasi Washington: Can You Hear Him?

The career of saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington bubbled under for a number of years before the Los Angeles-based artist broke through on a national and worldwide level. Hints of his potential were there early for those who paid attention: in 1999 Washington won the prestigious John Coltrane Music Competition. While a student at UCLA’s Department of Ethnomusicology, Washington played with acclaimed jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell, bandleader Gerald Wilson and others.

After lending his talents to some decidedly mainstream projects – Ryan Adams’ 2001 album Gold, indie rockers The Twilight Singers’ Blackberry Belle from 2003 – Washington launched his own career as a recording artist. A series of self-released efforts – Live at 5th Street Dick’s, The Proclamation and Light of the World – unveiled his personal vision of jazz, a style informed by fusion, avant-garde and funk.

Washinton would continue to play on other artists’ recordings, and in 2012 he surfaced as part of an edgy jazz-rock-avant garde project known as Throttle Elevator Music. To date that group has released four albums showcasing an abrasive and adventurous (yet accessible) jazz approach.

Having already worked with experimental multigenre artist Flying Lotus, in 2015 the tenor saxophonist gained his highest profile notices to date when he provided arrangements on “Mortal Man.” That song was a standout track on Kendrick Lamar’s near universally-acclaimed 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly. The same year, Washington guested on Thundercat’s The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam.

Despite those important projects, Washington’s crowning achievement of 2015 was the release of his fourth album, the major-label debut The Epic. Aptly named, the sprawling album runs nearly three hours, and showcases Washington’s instrumental ability and compositional/arranging prowess. The large ensemble on The Epic – musicians and singers – helped realize Washington’s expansive vision.

Numerous publications and online outlets named The Epic among the year’s best releases. While the album performed extremely well on the jazz album charts (Billboard #3), The Epic signaled that Washington’s appeal extends far beyond the rarefied jazz scene. The2 CD (or triple-LP) album reached #18 on Billboard’s Indie Album chart, and #6 on its Heatseekers ranking.

Displaying a seemingly bottomless well of creativity, Washington returned with 2017’s Harmony of Difference. Ostensibly an EP, the album-length work featured six compositions, each building on the one before it and culminating in a dense yet intriguing final cut, “Truth.” Nine months later Washington released Heaven and Earth, another epic-length album (over two hours), this time exploring themes around the creation of the universe. Once again critics were near unanimous in praising the artist’s simultaneous qualities of tunefulness and adventurous spirit.

If all that wasn’t enough, close inspection of the packaging for Heaven and Earth revealed a companion EP, The Choice, offering an additional 39 minutes of Washington’s music, and featuring covers of music by Goffin/King (a reading of the classic “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and a Rotary Connection-styled remake of the 1970s soul-pop hit “Ooh Child”). If past is prologue, the prolific and endlessly creative Kamasi Washington should be readying more music for release any day now.