No question: If you’re looking for one new musician to blow you away in concert this fall, the conversation starts and ends with Kamasi Washington.
Which probably raises one question for many readers: Kama-say-who?!
The Los Angeles saxophone player — pronounced “Kah-MA-see” — is widely being hailed as jazz’s new prince/ambassador. His adherence to John Coltrane and other classic ’60s jazz has earned him praise from such surviving greats as McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock, the latter of whom recruited him to open his Hollywood Bowl appearance last month. The New York Times declared him “the most-talked-about jazz musician since Wynton Marsalis arrived on the New York scene three decades ago.”
Unlike most new buzz makers in the jazz world, though, Washington also has ample street cred with non-jazz fans and people under 30. That recognition is due in large part to his contributions to rapper Kendrick Lamar’s groundbreaking 2015 album “To Pimp a Butterfly,” a masterpiece melting-pot of hip-hop, jazz and psychedelic R&B with themes of racial tension and identity issues.
Final question then: How good is he?
Coming Nov. 9 to First Avenue, Washington is a jaw-droppingly wicked player. He has a way of making his sax (mostly tenor) build from plush and sensual tones to frantic, hair-raising climaxes always with a looming, burly presence akin to his own physical stature. The Coltrane comparisons fit, of course, but another suitable correlation is Jimi Hendrix, if you know how much deeper and more soulful Hendrix’s work actually went beyond his hits.
Washington’s greatest talent, however, might be as a composer. He not only played a mean sax on “To Pimp a Butterfly,” but also wrote out the lush string arrangements. For his own album, his 2015 debut “The Epic,” he composed three discs’ worth of mostly original music — 174 minutes! — for a 10-piece band and occasionally a 30-piece string section, much of which was breathtaking and befitting of its title.
Both sides of his genius shine through when you see Washington live. While he made his Twin Cities debut at Icehouse in 2015 — destined to be an “I was there” gig for the lucky few who made it — I didn’t catch Washington in concert until this past April during the great New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Funny thing about Jazz Fest: It is rarely centered around jazz players. That wasn’t the case this past year, however, when Washington set up shop in New Orleans with six gigs over three nights at One Eyed Jack’s, a dimly lit, seatless, 300-capacity club in the French Quarter.
The set I caught was as much a showcase for Washington’s touring band, a six-piece, two-drummer crew dubbed the Next Step. That lineup is a streamlined version of the West Coast Get Down, a collective of fusion-driven L.A. area musicians that used to host weekly jams and included another budding star, freaky funk bassist Thundercat (whose own tour lands Sunday at First Ave).
As an added, meaningful bonus for the New Orleans run, the shows also featured Kamasi’s dad Rickey Washington, a woodwinds player who fronted his own L.A. area group in the ’70s and did session work for the Temptations and Diana Ross. Besides being his musical mentor, Kamasi has often pointed to his father as the reason he steered clear of a troubled street life in South Central Los Angeles, where he grew up.
One of the most striking pieces in the set I witnessed was an unreleased tune called “Black Man,” in which Next Step singer Patrice Quinn laid out poetic verses about the dangers young men like Kamasi face. That was the most overt example of how Washington’s music brings back a strong sense of African-American pride and resistance at a time when many would deem them crucially needed.
Visually, his wardrobe includes dashiki tops and other West African attire, and his album artwork is loaded with Afro-futuristic imagery. Musically, his work evokes the classic fire-stoking ’70s R&B sounds of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye, influences also evident on Lamar’s “Butterfly” album. More literally speaking, the closing tune on “The Epic” is a hymn dedicated to Malcolm X that features snippets of actor Ossie Davis’ eulogy for the slain rights activist.
Here in Minneapolis, it seems apt to have Washington coming to First Avenue, the rock club that helped launch Prince (who you know would be at this gig if he could). First Ave hosted the likes of Marsalis, Tyner and Sonny Rollins in the early-’80s but has pretty well been jazz-free since the ’90s, until now. Further proof that Washington is not your everyday jazz savior.