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Kamasi Washington: Epic!

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If you haven’t heard the name Kamasi Washington yet, it’s just a matter of time, because this young tenor player is taking the jazz world by storm. A west-coaster—and son of a saxophonist—Washington started playing drums as a little kid, then the clarinet. He listened almost exclusively to hip hop until he was about 13, when he picked up the soprano saxophone, and then the tenor. At that point, he sank into his father’s jazz collection, and found his way to John Coltrane.

Growing up in urban LA, Washington faced the challenges all young African-American kids deal with—violence, racism, gangs. Washington managed to pick his way through that minefield, immersing himself in practice regimes that rivaled Coltrane’s. By the time he hit university, he was already forming bands and recording. Now 34, Washington has an impressive performance history, working with hip hop and R&B artists, as well as a who’s who of jazz, including McCoy Tyner, Kenny Burrell, Freddie Hubbard, and George Wilson.

Like many young jazz musicians, Washington finds the boundaries between jazz and other forms pretty porous. In his second year of university, he toured with hip hop icon Snoop Dog, and that experience changed the way he thought about music. ‘‘All forms are complex once you get to a really high level, and jazz and hip-hop are so connected,’’ he said. ‘‘In hip-hop you sample, while in jazz you take Broadway tunes and turn them into something different. They’re both forms that repurpose other forms of music’’ (New York Times Magazine).

His recent album—a three-disc recording called The Epic, which came on the heels of his high-profile work on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly—made many of 2015’s best-of lists, and created a storm among listeners and critics all over the world. The Epic features “The Next Step,” Washington’s ten-piece band of two drummers, two upright basses, three horn players, a keyboard player, a pianist, and a vocalist. A full orchestra and choir fill out the palette. The work is dramatic, demanding, adventurous, and rewarding.

At a time when so many people are wailing about the death of jazz, Washington is packing concert halls and stadiums. He has said that he and his peers want to “remove jazz from the shelf of relics and make it new, unexpected and dangerous again” and he seems to be succeeding. As he says in a recent interview on Tidal, “Jazz musicians should be inspired right now, because there’s a door, a lane, an opportunity where people are actually open to it. And they’re open to jazz musicians doing their music, not just redoing or remaking somebody else’s music… It’s a great opportunity and I’m excited to see what kind of music is going to come out of that.”

Kamasi Washington is making the TD Winnipeg International Jazz Festival one of his few Canadian stops this summer. I’ll see you at the Burton Cummings Theatre on June 21!

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