In 2015, Kendrick Lamar solicited the technical genius of jazz master Kamasi Washington for To Pimp a Butterfly, and then again in 2017 for DAMN. In the months since, the Los Angeles-based saxophonist-composer, who has long been a fixture in the city’s experimental underground where he has shepherded a revival of psychedelic jazz fusion, was swept into the national spotlight. “It’s like now, no door is closed,” he says. “I can go to these small towns around the world, play whatever I want, and people are down to ride. That’s the dream.”
So far this year, the 37-year-old has worked on Florence + The Machine’s new album and is celebrating the release of his own sophomore LP, an ambitious double set titled Heaven and Earth (June 22, Young Turks). The album furthers his unorthodox approach to implanting jazz in a more contemporary context while relying on his encyclopedic knowledge of funk, calypso, gospel and the imaginative stylings of John Coltrane. As a result, he presents a vision born from years immersed in West Coast hip-hop.
“Hip-hop is a collage. It samples from all different styles of music,” says Washington. “That’s the spirit of jazz right now: artists finding hidden gems from other genres and making them their own.”
Washington’s projects have always been rich with deeper meaning. On his 2015 debut, The Epic, he responded to the tragic deaths of unarmed black men shot by police. His 2017 EP, Harmony of Difference, used varying versions of one melody to illustrate multiculturalism. With Heaven and Earth, he contrasts frenzied chaos (“Can You Hear Him”) against ethereal clarity (“Journey”) to illustrate both physical and spiritual realities. His philosophy is that the two inform each other, giving us more control over our world than we think.
“We’re the only ones who can change our reality,” he says. “If we all give our power to one person, that’s what the world will be. If we all decide to make the world a beautiful place, it’ll be a beautiful place.”
This article originally appeared in the June 30 issue of Streets Talkin.