Kamasi Washington didn’t get serious about music until he was 11 or 12.
“My dad’s a musician,” says the 36-year-old saxophone player and bandleader who will headline Union Transfer on Saturday night. “And when you grow up as a second-generation musician, music is just part of your life.”
The Los Angeleno was on the phone from Chicago, where, after leaving 80-degree temperatures behind at home, he was dismayed to arrive and find it was snowing.
Along with his eight-piece band The Next Step, he’s touring behind his new six-song celebration of diversity called Harmony of Difference. He’s also performing material from 2015’s appropriately titled The Epic. And, in an added bonus that will make it a truly mind-blowing evening, Philadelphia’s Sun Ra Arkestra will open the Union Transfer show.
It was with that 2015 wildly ambitious and equally successful triple album that Washington emerged out of relative obscurity to instantly become, in Downbeat’s words, “the most talked-about artist in jazz,” and, as the New York Times put it: “Something his genre rarely produces anymore: a celebrity.”
His name is frequently featured in the credits of hip-hop and genre-spanning artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Thundercat.
Growing up, “I wasn’t really focused on any particular style of music,” Washington says. “Music was just there.”
“I knew about jazz. I knew about Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and people like that. But then my cousin gave me an Art Blakey tape. And I started looking at jazz as something that I really loved, not as something that my dad did. That was around the time that I started playing saxophone, too.”
Before that, Washington had played drums, piano, and clarinet. “Then I got turned onto Blakey, and Wayne Shorter became my favorite musician and I wanted to switch to saxophone.” His father wouldn’t let him because he want him to get better on clarinet first, “so one day when he wasn’t around, I just took his saxophone and started playing it. And I went to him later and it was like, ‘Too late. I can already play the saxophone.’”
The life-changing tape was a mix that included some songs from Blakey’s 1961 A Night in Tunisia and 1964’s Free for All, and also Philadelphia trumpeter Lee Morgan’s 1966 The Gigolo. Washington’s cousin was older and “cooler than me. I had already heard most of that music, but I hadn’t paid attention to it. I started to really dig into it. And I realized my dad had this record collection with all this music in it. That was really like the first step on my little journey.”
Washington majored in ethnomusicology at UCLA, studying composition with the trumpeter Gerald Wilson, and he started to build up an impressively varied resumé. He cut the solo on Ryan Adam’s “New York, New York” on 2001’s Gold, toured with Snoop Dogg, released three albums as a leader in the mid-00s, and played on four with his mentor’s Gerald Wilson Orchestra before Wilson’s death in 2014.
But he also started to lose sight of his own vision. “You get lost in making music for other people, and those other people’s music can become what you are.”
“Every day, I was in the airport somewhere, going to play with someone. And I had a moment where I decided I was going to cancel all my gigs and not take anything for a month. I was just going to create something that is a true representation of who I am.”
That was in 2011. Almost four years later, The Epic was complete.
“My idea was to write songs, but to leave it open and improvisational and record with my friends, and then go back and write some more on top of that,” Washington says. “But I ended up with way more music than I expected to. Altogether, we recorded like 190 songs. So I had a bunch of music to sift through.”
In 2012, Washington narrowed it down to 17 lengthy songs. But “I couldn’t cut anything else out and have it still feel like a complete representation of who I am, or where I was, of where I had gone up to the moment in my life.”
The solution came in a dream. “It was about this guy who lived on a mountain, and there was this village at the bottom and the people who lived there were really enamored of this guy who guarded this gate.”
The first time Washington had the dream was when he was working on The Epic’s swaggering opening track, “Changing of the Guard.”
He started having the dream and hearing all 17 songs on the album while in his sleep. “I took it as a sign that I didn’t need to take anything out, that this was supposed to be the album.” He took the sprawling finished product to his friend Flying Lotus, the electronic DJ who runs the Brainfeeder label, and to his great relief, the record exec born Steven Ellison listened to his spiel, “and he just laughed and said, ‘I knew you were going to do something crazy like this.’ ”
The Epic was met with universal acclaim and has attracted youthful, nontraditional jazz audiences to venues that are just as likely to be rock clubs as trad jazz spots.
“There’s a lot of variety with my music,” Washington says. “It has a very eclectic palette. I think a lot of people can find something that they can relate to in it.”
The Epic also changed his life. “When I want to play with someone now, it’s not like it used to be, where I could show up at the house and play some video games, watch some movies, and play some music. It used to be more spontaneous, now it requires more planning.”
Harmony of Difference is a more economical project, lasting under 35 minutes. Washington was approached by the Whitney Museum of American Art for its biennial, which ran from March to June this year. Working with his visual artist sister, Amani, who created six paintings for the exhibit, and Catalan filmmaker A.G. Rojas, he made Harmony into a song suite in which five shorter songs, “Desire,” “Humility,” “Knowledge,” “Perspective,” and “Integrity,” are masterfully woven together into a final composition called “Truth.”
“At the time I was approached by the Whitney” — in summer 2016 — “I was racking my brain about what to do, and the general feel of the world was really putting a negative light on the idea of diversity.”
“Los Angeles is a super-diverse place. There are just so many different people. Different languages. Different food. Clothing. Ways of thinking. And I’ve always looked at it as a beautiful thing. I just look at the world as being as beautiful as it is because there are so many different approaches to life.
“So I wanted to make something that instead of focusing on the difficulties of it that shed light on how beautiful it is. That it’s not something we should tolerate, it’s something we should celebrate and be thankful for. It’s a gift. It’s not a problem.”
“And Harmony of Difference is a metaphor for that. I created five songs that interact with each other with the concept of counterpoint. And then at the end, you hear the songs played together in unity.”
Washington is working on a proper, full-length follow-up to The Epic that he expects to complete and release in 2018. “I’ve been writing. It’ll be different, but it’ll be really cool.”
And it could also possibly, once again, be epic in length. “We’ll have to see,” he says with a laugh. “It’s seeming like it might be.”