The Los Angeles-based tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington, who has worked with Gerald Wilson and Stanley Clarke as well as with Snoop Dogg and Yasiin Bey, does not do small. The Epic, his first release for rapper and electronic-music producer Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label, is three discs of assertive, unrelenting spiritual jazz. His band, the Next Step, is 10 musicians strong: two drummers, two bassists, two pianists, three horn players and a vocalist. And on the album that ensemble is augmented by an orchestra and a choir, the latter of which brings both a psychedelic edge and a religious fervor to the music. Then there’s Washington’s playing. He is a powerhouse tenorman of the first degree, dispatching solo after explosive solo to the furthest reaches of the cosmos. The concept for The Epic sounds like some sort of jazz-musician fantasy-“What if we added strings and voices to a well-oiled postbop little-big-band?” But make no mistake, The Epic is a fully realized idea. A triumph, even.
Born into a musical L.A. family in 1981-his father is a saxophonist and his mother plays flute-Washington picked up the sax at age 13. But even before he touched the instrument he had started gathering the members of the Next Step-drummers Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr., double bassist Miles Mosley, electric bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, acoustic pianist Cameron Graves, keyboardist Brandon Coleman, trombonist Ryan Porter, trumpeter Dontae Winslow (Igmar Thomas subs for Winslow on the album) and vocalist Patrice Quinn-as friends. “Ronald Bruner and I have been [close] since we were babies, since I was 3,” says Washington. “I knew about Stephen Bruner when he was an idea, when his parents were thinking about having another baby.”