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Five for Friday: Kamasi Washington's Influences

Three years ago, Kamasi Washington released The Epic, a massive three-disc effort recorded with a 10-piece band, 20-person choir, and 32-piece orchestra. In addition to serving as the composer/collaborator/producer/musician's coming-out party, the debut functions as a modern take on jazz by connecting it with funk, R&B, hip-hop, and more. Washington returns this week with Heaven and Earth, an equally bold effort that sees the groundbreaking artist getting more topical while ramping up the drama. The horn player, for instance, isn't afraid to let a song explode into full symphonic glory. His music nods to saxophonist greats and Afro-futurists such as Sun Ra, but also remains refreshingly shaped by popular culture. Here, we look at five of Washington's many and varied influences.

Bruce Lee
The action-movie star serves as both an abstract and an obvious influence on Washington. In some ways, it's a no-brainer, especially considering one of the singles on Heaven and Earth is titled "Fist of Fury," a nod to Bruce Lee's 1972 film of the same name. But Lee, of course, never became a musician. No matter. Washington's work reflects pop culture as a whole. Washington clearly has fun with the film's soundtrack, in which composer Joseph Koo mirrored Lee's ballet-like artistry when it came to inflicting pain. Just listen to the work's grand, European strings and bachelor-pad-cool takes on jazz. Washington runs with these traits to create a nearly 10-minute piece complete with marching horns and a sweetly aggressive saxophone. It's a political call to action, but Washington handles it with the effortless choreography of a masterful Lee fight scene.

John Coltrane
As a saxophonist, Washington regularly talks of Coltrane's influence. The connection feels natural, as Coltrane, especially later in his career, dove into jazz's wilder sides. When in expressive, free-form mode, Coltrane often took classical works and ran ragged. Washington in particular often speaks highly of 'Trane's mid-60s cut "Transition," keying in on what it means to play with contrast. And how. With his quartet keeping things refined in the background, Coltrane rips through one solo and then tears through another, his instrument sounding on high alert through the first half of the song before going completely bonkers and high-pitched during the second half. You can draw a direct line from Coltrane's approach to that of Washington: The Epic tracks such as "Final Thought" don't just build, they erupt.

West Coast Hip-Hop
Washington's music bridges styles – and generations. Having regularly worked with the likes of Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar, Washington harbors a passion for hip-hop, and the appreciation runs both ways. In interviews, he gives shouts out to N.W.A, praising the attitude more than the group's beats and sound – a underlining the importance of music that feels of the moment. Washington continues to bring such contemporary relevance to jazz. Listen, for instance, to 2017's gospel-infused "Truth." Undoubtedly inspired by the era of so-called "fake news," Washington's song mixes soothing, balm-like grooves with panicked orchestral notes. Then, of course, there's "Malcolm's Message" from The Epic, which recasts Ossie Davis' eulogy for Malcolm X as something more dreamlike and pleading.

"Street Fighter II"
Of the many reasons Washington gets singled out for bringing newer, younger audiences to jazz is because he speaks a youthful language. His new composition "Street Fighter Mas" provides evidence. Rather than reference the similarly titled Rolling Stones song, "Street Fighter Mas" nods to the popular "Street Fighter" video-game franchise. Indeed, Washington has framed his love of "Street Fighter" as a hobby that's a borderline obsession. While the video for "Street Fighter Mas" makes his passion apparent – complete with video-game effects and a cameo from an old coin-op machine – the song, too, opts for a playful vibe. Saxophone tones stretch to such extremes that at points they feel synthetic, and a backing choir lends cinematic heft. Throughout, the odd rhythmic warbles and a shifting, slightly funky groove make the work feel like a theme for a video-game villain.

Fela Kuti
Spend a little time with Washington's music and you'll easily become fascinated at its breadth. But try to intellectualize Washington's influences, and you might get overwhelmed. Yet the impact of African legend Fela Kuti, the king of Afrobeat, can't be overlooked. Much of Washington's material seeks to get audiences to move; this isn't jazz built for sitting quietly in admiration. Check out "Re Run Home," a cut from The Epic. A marvel of musical diversity, the song launches with a restrained piano, which soon gives way to Stevie Wonder-inspired funk, which in turn cedes the spotlight to a bustling, worldly groove. Washington's sax gets more powerful as the song progresses, but so do the underlying Afrobeat rhythms, which feel more urgent with each passing moment of the 14-minute track.

June 22, 2018

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