Music News & Reviews

Jazz man’s ‘Epic’ undertaking

Saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington’s latest album is “The Epic.”
Saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington’s latest album is “The Epic.” Atom Factory Inc.

After hearing saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington’s album “The Epic,” you have to concede the title was neither a boast nor false advertising. It’s big all over.

The record features a wide-ranging 172 minutes of jazz spread across 17 songs on three CDs. Nominally mainstream jazz, Washington’s compositions can be loose and free-form. or sometimes clean and surprisingly even.

Los Angeles-based and UCLA-trained, Washington recorded with musicians he’s played with for years and some he’s known since childhood – a 10-piece band augmented by a 32-piece orchestra and a 20-person choir.

Since the album’s release in May, Washington has been receiving the kind of unavoidable hype and buzz that happens on a weekly basis in pop music but occurs just about once a decade in jazz. In the midst of a six-month world tour, Washington brings his eight-piece band the Next Step to Harlow’s on Friday, Sept. 18.

Recording the album has become its own myth due to the grand scope the sessions eventually took. Washington, 34, wanted to document the collective of musicians he’s known and worked with since they were all kids.

“As I started calling these guys, the general sentiment was everyone had music they wanted to record,” Washington said in a telephone interview.

“Instead of just going in for a couple of days and recording my record, we basically canceled all of our gigs for a whole month and went in and recorded eight different projects, mine included,” he continued.

“We had a little music sweat shop. We were in there from 10 in the morning till 2 in the morning everyday, just really grinding it out.”

They ended up with a staggering amount of music – 190 songs; Washington had 45 tunes of his own. He also felt like there was a story in a group of songs that needed to be heard together in one album. He told his label Brainfeeder what he wanted to do in a meeting with its founder, new music guru Flying Lotus (Steven Ellison).

“He just laughed and said he knew I was going to do something like that and he was down so that’s really the reason why I called it ‘The Epic,’ ” Washington said.

Washington’s music has strong links to the grandeur and density of pianist McCoy Tyner’s post-Coltrane quartet records of the seventies – “Sahara,” “Enlightenment,” “Sama Layuca” and “Fly With the Wind” all come to mind. While no one writes like Wayne Shorter, Washington creates similar lyrical complexity. He acknowledged the roles those masters played in his development.

“I definitely grew up listening to Wayne and McCoy quite a bit,” Washington said.

“I didn’t get to play with them enough to consider them hands-on influences on me, but they are two of my top five biggest influences for my whole life.”

Washington did get some “hands-on” influence when he took a music history class at UCLA from composer and band leader Gerald Wilson.

“He took me under his wing in general and taught me a lot about harmony – writing for large ensembles,” Washington said. Wilson also hired Washington into his formidable big bands, both the Los Angeles and New York versions.

“I learned a lot listening to his music, playing his music and just sitting with him at the piano showing me things,” Washington said.

The composer has worked in a variety of musical genres beyond jazz, though. He performs on the highly acclaimed “To Pimp a Butterfly” by hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar and has played with Chaka Khan, Lauryn Hill and Snoop Dogg.

“Every style of music is connected,” Washington said.

“There’s one tree with all these branches. Playing with Snoop, it wasn’t so much about what you played, but it was how you played it.

“The difficult part of playing his music was they had this very particular degree of detail. They divide the beat into like 32 different pieces and you need to play it in the exact same spot every time, and if you’re not doing that, you’re not playing it right.”

Washington has been able to take that degree of detail and meld it with the freedom of jazz. That has made his music “exponentially more open,” which is how his band functions best, he said. Live, he’s not trying to re-create the record.

“Every single version of every song has been different. That’s the cool thing about seeing us live, it becomes an inclusive thing,” he said. “The place we’re at – the food, the energy, the vibe of the city – affects us and it affects the music.”

Marcus Crowder: 916-321-1120, @marcuscrowder

Kamasi Washington and The Next Step

What: The experienced but still young jazz saxophonist from Los Angeles has a sound and sensibility that confidently approach the expectations generated by his critically acclaimed 3-CD release “The Epic.”

When: 9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 18; doors open at 8 p.m.

Where: Harlow’s Restaurant and Nightclub, 2708 J St., Sacramento

Tickets: $18; 21 and over

Information: (916) 441-4693; http://www.harlows.com/

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