Los Angeles occupies a singular place in jazz history. Though many accomplished musicians have moved there, beginning with prominent New Orleans jazz pioneers early in the twentieth century, in many ways it has remained isolated, leaving wonderful talents out of the national spotlight.
In the 1950s, some L.A. musicians attained international reputations as representatives of a West Coast cool jazz movement; subsequently, in the early 1960s, Ornette Coleman, after creating a sensation with his L.A. records, soon moved East to make a major impact on the development of the music.
Last year L.A. once again surprised the world with a new jazz sensation. Saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington, in the company of other hitherto unknown musicians, including his father, released a three-CD album on a label (Brainfeeder) hardly known for jazz under the less-than-modest title The Epic. Many critics judged it as the most impressive debut in a long time.
Washington grew up in L.A. and, after a thorough musical education in its schools and academies, obtained a degree in ethnomusicology from UCLA. His local success was quick, and he has worked steadily in his home city in various contexts, from jazz to pop and hip-hop, including lucrative gigs with Chaka Khan and Snoop Dogg. He played a major role in putting together Kendrick Lamar’s eminently successful, sophisticated hip-hop album To Pimp a Butterfly, which featured his string arrangements and saxophone playing.
It is not easy to come to grips with the popular and critical success of Washington’s The Epic. The leader has a wonderful virtuosic tenor saxophone technique and a profound knowledge of the whole history of jazz. His big, expansive saxophone sound can morph over the course of a solo from warm softness to expansive cries and multiphonic excitement. The Epic opens with a song entitled “Change of the Guard,” which might be compared with Coleman’s pathbreaking record, Change of the Century. While the latter was truly transformational, Washington’s work lies securely in the jazz mainstream, but with a Hollywood string section and well-blended use of various musical styles, from calypso to hip-hop, that reflect his versatile career as a working musician. He has a talent for making jazz that is expressive and exciting, that speaks to a broad audience without condescension or “smooth jazz” pap; in today’s musical world that is much more difficult to do than it may seem. For many, he is bringing soul back into the jazz mainstream, saving it from academic perfection.
UMS will present Kamasi Washington and the Next Step on September 30 at the Michigan Theater.