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Kamasi Washington brings his epic vision to NYC

Jazz saxophonist and bandleader Kamasi Washington talks about his ambitious, sprawling 2015 debut, The Epic

Photograph: Mike Park

For the past decade, L.A.’s Kamasi Washington has been a successful sideman, backing everyone from NEA Jazz Masters Gerald Wilson and Kenny Burrell to rap icons Snoop Dogg and best-album-of-2015-creator Kendrick Lamar. But the scope of the saxophonist’s vision didn’t fully present itself until his debut, last year’s The Epic. The nearly three-hour exploration, which moves from straight-ahead, Afro Cuban and modal jazz to gospel, funk and classical music, has earned Washington a place in the critical spotlight and a growing, diverse audience. His summer shows at Blue Note in NYC were energetic, packed affairs, filled with fans eager to hear the sprawling work live. Washington had to postpone an appearance at January’s Winter Jazzfest due to an ankle injury—this week, the fest brings him back for a show at a venue not typically accustomed to jazz: Webster Hall. (He’ll be back this summer for a free Central Park SummerStage show on June 18.)

You’ve performed in NYC a few times already. How did you like it?
There’s energy in New York that you can’t really reproduce anywhere else in the world. There’s a kind of sharpness [laughs] to the people who live here that is cool. It’s very inspiring…. The last show we did at Le Poisson Rouge was one of the highlights of the tour.

Critic Greg Tate described you as the “jazz voice of the Black Lives Matter movement.” Would you care to comment on that?
I think the Black Lives Matter movement is about the perception of African-American people as being a threat—and I’m a prototypical big dark-skinned guy that is the model of the threatening person you’re supposed to be afraid of. And I think it is that fear that ends up leading to the violence. There’s a fear of aggression, and that leads to a lack of humanity in the way that we’re viewed. I think in that sense, yeah, my music is a representative of that. I think it shows that type of mentality that there’s no logic to it.

Do you think your music can help change attitudes?
I think that music is one of the greatest ways of doing it. When you listen to someone’s music and it reaches you, you automatically connect with [that artist] and that visual image. Instead of you thinking of some person as one you need to be afraid of, you feel connected to [that person] from the music.

What took you so long to make an album under your own name?
Well, it’s a gift and a curse being in demand and having a successful career as a sideman. I was making music for other people. I needed to make that leap of not just taking what comes to me but going after what I want. But that was part of my journey.

What were some of the lessons you learned from playing with Snoop and Kendrick?
I was really impressed with the fact that Kendrick’s last album was incredibly successful. Then for him to turn around and do something in such a different direction [with To Pimp a Butterfly]….A lot of people are fearless when they’re coming up, but when they rise to the top, they get stuck in what they think people want to hear. Seeing that was inspiring to me.

You call your band the Next Step. What does that signify?
The Next Step was like, Okay, we’ve now done this, we’ve been on the road, we’ve played with our heroes. I don’t want to get caught where I’m just hopping from one gig to the next. I want to take the next step and bring all that wisdom and knowledge back to my music and push our own voice to the next level.

Kamasi Washington plays Webster Hall Wednesday, February 24, at 7pm.

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