The estimable tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington has, over the past few years, earned a reputation as something of a seer. That’s partly thanks to his choice of promotional imagery. On the cover of his aptly titled breakout album, The Epic—released on the Brainfeeder label in 2015—Washington is depicted in a black-and-white photograph, holding up his horn as a sort of offering, painted planets arrayed behind him. It’s cosmic stuff. But so is his music. The Epic was a three-hour saga, featuring an excellent two-drummer band, a choir and an orchestra. And it had stylistic scope, harking back to Coltrane’s mid-’60s spiritual phase, electric Miles, Donald Byrd, Wayne Shorter, Grover Washington Jr., Fela Kuti—a potent synthesis of jazz and funk.
Washington wasn’t inventing a new subgenre, exactly, but the raw energy he brought to each track was exhilarating. Open-minded jazz aficionados saw that he’d injected a new crossover energy into the tradition, while those who didn’t know much about jazz appreciated his hip-hop bona fides. (He’s played with Snoop Dogg and contributed string arrangements and some tenor saxophone to Kendrick Lamar’s third album, To Pimp a Butterfly.) Washington’s lionization as a jazz savior, capable of spreading his ecumenical music to the masses, was mostly justified. But it put him in a precarious state. Expectations were high.