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Kamasi Wasington Explores Outside The Limits Of Jazz With 'The Epic'

An image of jazz musician Kamasi Washington
Mike Park
Jazz musician Kamasi Washington

Kamasi Washington is putting his mark on jazz this year in a big way, venturing outside the world of backup saxophonist to an explorative and evocative bandleader.  

After working on arrangements with hip-hop luminary Kendrick Lamar's on the complex and compelling To Pimp A Butterfly, Washington grabbed his sax and gathered together with friends in Los Angeles to record his debut album.  After 30 days in the studio, the sprawling triple-album The Epic was born.

The record has strings, trumpets, keyboards and everything in between, and features fellow up-and-coming jazz musicians Stephen Bruner, otherwise known as Thundercat, upright bassist Miles Mosley and keyboard player Brandon Coleman, or "Dr. Boogie" as Washington calls him.

The Epic is vast and fluid in many regards, but some songs stand out as points of reference as listeners dive into the album's three-hour set. "Change of the Guard" is one of these songs. Washington recounted how the visceral song rippled across the album.

"Around the time I finished the string and choir arrangements, I had this recurring dream of this guy standing on top of a huge mountain," he said. "He was guarding this gate and at the bottom of the mountain there was this little village, and all the people in the village did was train to one day go and challenge the guard at the top of the gate to possibly beat him and become the new guard of the gate. But nobody had in 100 years, and that ended up inspiring other dreams and the whole long storyline that encompassed all the songs from the whole record."

From Lamar to Snoop Dogg, Washington said his collaboration with the hip-hop world is a part of the legacy of jazz legends like John Coltrane and Charles Mingus who played across genres.

"Coltrane played blues clubs and played the blues. That was his contemporary music," Washington said. "We have these terms we use that seem to make (music) disconnected. Music is an expression of humanity and just like humans, we are different, but we are not. Music is the same way. It's different but then its not. They are all connected. "

Washington will play at Motorcoin Durham Friday at 9:00 p.m.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond is a podcast producer for WUNC.
Eric Hodge hosts WUNC’s broadcast of Morning Edition, and files reports for the North Carolina news segments of the broadcast. He started at the station in 2004 doing fill-in work on weekends and All Things Considered.
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