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For ‘Epic’ Saxophonist Kamasi Washington, the Death of Jazz Has Been Largely Exaggerated

Kamasi Washington
Chris Hoard

“I’m a daydreamer,” says tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington, 34, reflecting on the creative process that led to his May 5 release, “The Epic.” The 17-song, three-CD concept album on the Brainfeeder label features Washington’s longtime core collaborators often heard at local venues like Hollywood’s Piano Bar as “The West Coast Get Down.” On Monday night, Washington’s regiment performed the entire work to an SRO audience at downtown L.A.’s Regent Theater, augmented by a string section and choir that crowded every square inch of an ample stage.

Studio jazz recordings of new, original material of this scale are rare, if not entirely unprecedented, since the heydays of Gil Evans and Oliver Nelson.

Monday’s sold-out performance came in the wake of a wave of press devoted to “The Epic,” including ample coverage on NPR’s “A Blog Supreme” and prominent features in the New York Times and the L.A. Times.

Washington’s crossover following also has been boosted by his studio and string arrangement on Kendrick Lamar’s chart topping March 2015 release, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” and Flying Lotus’ acclaimed “You’re Dead,” which featured jazz luminaries like Herbie Hancock along with Washington and West Coast Get Down regulars bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, drummer Ronald Bruner Jr., and multi-instrumentalist/producer Terrace Martin.

Perhaps more significantly, all of these players grew up together in South Central Los Angeles, many the children of professional musicians, and several of them Kamasi’s closest friends since early childhood. The result is both level of musical empathy and a collective energy that knows few if any limits.

“Butterfly” includes raps framed in layers of electronic music, samples and jazz phrasings not lost on Washington. “That’s why I was so happy about this Kendrick Lamar record,” he says, “because it had been so rare than an album that lush, that real, that pure got pushed by ‘the big machine.’ How often does that happen? It’s communicating on two levels, like Marvin’ Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On.’ There’s the music itself, the instrumentals but then his words communicate something as well.”

The live rendering of “The Epic” left its young audience astonished by the musical spectacle, and the overwhelming volume and cacophony of the live mix alternated between inspiration and bombast. The musical references ranged from contrapuntal horn flourishes over a James Brown-style backbeat to the controlled chaos of the Sun Ra Arkestra to even oddly familiar themes that recalled primetime television shows from the ’70s.

Washington’s performance included several pauses, where he narrated portions of his mythical story spoken over a minimalist or ambient music backdrop.

The project began as Washington and his 10 fellow musicians committed to a month of woodshedding in a Silver Lake studio. What began in 2011 as an album collaboration with DJ and visual artist Flying Lotus soon resulted in an embarrassment of riches.

“We walked away with something like eight albums and a 190 songs — I had 45, and they all were great,” he remembers. “And then I filtered out the songs where there was nothing I would change in them, and I still had 17. I went back to Lotus and told him I’m going to boil down these songs to just one album.

“But I had an idea about a large ensemble,” Kamasi adds. “I wanted to use the texture of strings and have some singing with a choir to add the depth of the human voice. But I didn’t want to lock the band into a set arrangement.” Washington spent the next 18 months processing the studio recordings, writing the string and choir parts.

Early in that process a creative catalyst intervened: “So I started writing to those songs, and then I started having this dream. And I know it’s going to sound weird but it kind of felt like a movie. As the stories started unfolding I started making connections with the songs. So I was having some gnarly little dreams for a minute, and then the whole story just kind of came out.”

Monday night’s enraptured audience, largely composed of the kind of 20- and 30somethings not normally seen in stuffy jazz clubs, might have wondered if they were immersed in a thunderous sonic dream. The second movement featured a rare theater appearance by one of EDM’s most popular DJs, Gaslamp Killer, a perfectly appropriate dimension to the show as many were already dancing.

Despite overwhelming crescendos of more-is-more scale, when the core band locked into a swinging groove, Washington’s distinct tenor sax runs took over, commanding the room’s full attention. Explosions of jazz and funk technique by drummer Ronald Bruner, the chordal phrasings of his brother Thundercat, and the dancing pyrotechnics of pianist Cameron Graves added to all the virtuosity on display.

In a millennium largely absent of anything new or captivating in the jazz idiom, Washington has just unleashed a musical hydra grounded in respect and intimate knowledge of the past and striking far out into a hopeful future.