Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is one of the most important hip-hop records of the last several years. And its collaborations are many, including Snoop Dogg, George Clinton, Isley Brothers lead singer Ron Isley and electronic producer Flying Lotus. Yet one relative unknown made a profound impact on the jazz-focused hip-hop album — Kamasi Washington, whose work as a soloist and arranger helped to define the LP’s the distinctive sound.
The tenor saxophonist Washington’s involvement on To Pimp a Butterfly was hardly a forced or unlikely occurrence. One of Lamar’s producers, Terrace Martin, has known and played jazz with Washington since high school. It’s a similar connection that links Washington with a collective of about a dozen Los Angeles jazz musicians in their early 30s, the majority of whom hail from the same area of South Central and came of age playing together in the same school ensemble.
The “multi-school” band, as it was called, now makes up a cooperative group called the West Coast Get Down, and have addressed the lack of jazz (and venues that support it) in Los Angeles head on by creating residencies around the city. Washington conducts the band at about its fullest, including two saxophones and trombone; upright bassist Miles Mosley; keyboardist Brandon Coleman, who affects his instrument with distortion and wah-wah pedals; and two drummers Ronald Bruner and Tony Austin, who play off each other to built intricate enfolding rhythms. On a whole, they keep their shows diverse by taking turns as bandleaders, each of whom directs a different sized band and so the sound and cast of characters is ever-amorphous.
But the key to the West Coast Get Down’s relevance today is that it does not exist in a vacuum, free from more “modern” genres’ influence. As with Washington’s role on To Pimp a Butterfly, its members have authentically aligned themselves with progressive hip-hop.
Beyond Washington’s contribution to Lamar’s album and his previous touring with Snoop Dogg, his expansive and appropriately titled new triple-disc debut called The Epic was released on Flying Lotus’ cutting edge Brainfeeder label in May. All of these pieces have aligned to bolster Washington’s reputation — around Los Angeles at least — in a wave of buzz and interest. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers have all been supportive:
this new @KamasiW record is the best jazz record i have heard since the seventies. truly a force of nature.
— Flea (@flea333) May 8, 2015
Washington’s The Epic is just the start, too. The album was recorded in late 2011 when he and nine other players pooled their money to rent a massive recording studio and produce seven albums in about a month, each one with different sub-groupings and a different leader. The Epic is just the first to be released.
Though super stardom may not be imminent, that it has even touched the mainstream is an impressive feat. And the knowledge there is plenty more to come is inspiring on its own. Watch Washington and company perform The Epic in full at its release party the Regent Theater in Downtown L.A. below.
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