Kamasi Washington brings his epic jazz sound to Atlanta

1461002239487By Franklin Abbott

Saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington has been studying with the masters for years. He grew up in a musical household with his dad being a jazz musician and his house being a place where musicians would congregate and jam.

He took up the drums at age 3, moved on to piano and clarinet and finally to his dad’s instrument, the saxophone, at 13. He attended a high school that had a well respected music program and began playing in bands. Many of his high school band mates still perform with him 20 years later.

After a few years of studies in ethnomusicology at UCLA, Washington went on the road with Snoop Dog and later toured the world with Raphael Saadiq. He has played in the bands of many of the most outstanding jazz and pop musicians of the day including McCoy Tyner, Lauryn Hill, George Duke and Chaka Khan. His most recent collaboration has been with Kendrick Lamar playing sax and arranging strings on Lamar’s wildly popular album “To Pimp a Butterfly.”

Washington says that “everybody I’ve toured with I’ve learned from. I took a piece of what they had and made it my own.” He learned a great deal about the technical side of music and feels blessed to have made his living at “a job that doesn’t feel like work.” He has great admiration for Kendrick Lamar, who he met through producer Terence Martin. He describes Lamar as a great musician who is first and foremost an artist. He says Lamar is very “hands on” with every aspect of his recordings and calls him a kindred spirit.

The Next Step, Washington’s own band, is composed of the same guys he played with in high school and college. He says of his band mates that they share the same unique language with each of them having “a piece of the dictionary.” The band is featured on his new recording “The Epic,” a 172 minute, 3 CD recording that is being hailed as a masterpiece that also debuted at #1 on the iTunes chart.

“The Epic” was inspired by a dream in which young warriors battle the guardian of a gate. Washington sees the young warriors as young musicians and the guardian as the representative of jazz tradition. The gate finally opens to a worthy young warrior and the epic journey begins. Washington believes that “the world is in need of the expansion of the human mind. We have to grow up as a species he says.” He feels that “when all else fails that music will bring us together.” His music is being embraced by a much younger generation than the average jazz fan. He is hailed as “the jazz voice of Black Lives Matter” though his audiences are multicultural and multi-generational.

Washington speaks of his creative process as an ability to “tap into Source.” He says that as a musician he has learned to hear deeper frequencies. He can take an intimation from this deeper place and make a small idea into a song, “a jewel.” His Atlanta concert will feature his band The Next Step and music from “The Epic.” He says every show is different as he and his band “dial in to the imagery of the city that is unique.” He adds it is “a journey we all go on together.”

Kamasi Washington and The Next Step will appear on Wednesday, May 4, at Variety Playhouse.
Franklin Abbott is a psychotherapist and consultant, writer and community organizer. 

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