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The Soulful Crossover of Kamasi Washington

David Fricke reflects on the rapid artistic and commercial growth of Kamasi Washington

Kamasi Washington

In late February, during an interview for another magazine, I asked the saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins a question about jazz and the pop mainstream-basically, how much crossover is too much? “I came up in the golden days,” he said, gazing across his living room in upstate New York at the photographs of Lester Young, Art Blakey and Louis Armstrong on the opposite wall. “But when Miles changed and did more rock things, I was in favor of that, of people doing whatever they can do. I played with electric guitars, Fender Rhodes piano. I was also reviled for that. But I always felt music was open, and you should be able to do anything.”

Rollins, whose credits include the Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You, acknowledged the high price of purism today. “Every time I talk to jazz musicians,” he said, “it’s, ‘Oh, man, there’s no work out there.'” Drawing from outside the niche for inspiration, a path forward and some just reward “should be considered as a way to go, if you can do it,” Rollins said emphatically. He also cited a hopeful example: Los Angeles tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s 2015 debut album, a three-CD monument and new-year media sensation called The Epic. “I’ve got it. It’s great,” Rollins continued. “He’s coming out of a certain period”-mid-’60s spiritual John Coltrane-“but I think he’s growing more into himself.”

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