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Kamasi Washington: Life Overflowing

The covers of saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s last two albums cast him as a towering, mythical force in music. On his 2015 debut, The Epic, he floats surrounded by imagined planets and speckled stars, while 2018’s follow-up, Heaven and Earth, frames him between a placid cerulean lake and mountainscape, his feet miraculously hovering just above the water. In each image he is alone, crowned by his afro, adorned in medallions and clutching his talismanic tenor sax: a jazz warrior seemingly from outer space.

They are striking, fantastical concoctions bringing to mind the spiritual jazz imagery of forebears like Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders or Alice Coltrane. Yet, they also ring true to Washington’s own story. Over the past decade, the six-foot-tall bandleader has become a key proponent of a new L.A. jazz scene, a figurehead championing a distinctly maximalist sound unlike any other improvisations that have been released in the 21st century. It is Washington’s fast-paced, frenetic horn that you hear on Kendrick Lamar’s seminal 2015 rap-G-funk-jazz fusion record To Pimp a Butterfly, for instance, while his combination of choral music, orchestral arrangement and searing improv on The Epic led him to be labelled “the jazz voice of Black Lives Matter” by the late critic Greg Tate. 

Read the cover story in Crack Magazine.

[This piece was published on 02/05/24]

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