Saxophonist Kamasi Washington To Keep Things 'Wide Open and Spontaneous' at JazzFest

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When his son was still a teenager, Kamasi Washington’s father left a saxophone lying on the family's piano. Washington, who knew how to play clarinet, picked it up and immediately played the Wayne Shorter tune, “Sleeping Dancer Sleep On,” his favorite song at the time.

He was hooked.

“I always wanted to play the saxophone,” says Washington in a recent phone interview from his Los Angeles home. He performs at 6 p.m. on Saturday at the Allen Theatre as part of Tri-C JazzFest. “They’re similar instruments. My dad kept telling me I had to learn clarinet first, so I was learning these songs on clarinet. Compared to saxophone, they’re not exactly the same. Things that are easy on saxophone are hard on clarinet, and some things that are easy on clarinet are hard on saxophone. The sound and music I was hearing in my head was saxophone. I didn’t know that until I played the saxophone. But once I did, I knew it was what I was trying to do. My dad wanted me to play clarinet and didn’t know I would switch. It was a bit of a mutiny when I did.”

That “mutiny” has paid dividends. While he was in high school, Washington put together a band to compete for a scholarship. The group won the competition, and one critic proclaimed Washington and his pals were "young jazz giants." The name stuck, and the band called itself the Young Jazz Giants.

Thanks, in part, to the group’s success, Washington received a scholarship to UCLA, where he pursued a degree in ethnomusicology.

“I knew I wanted to study music, but I wanted to study in a way that I would learn,” he says when asked about why he chose that particular major. “I wanted to be exposed and pushed in a way that would take me in a direction that I wasn’t already going. I did my own kind of thing. I was a Jazz Studies major in ethnomusicology with a composition emphasis. I was trying to get everything they had. I was interested in learning about music from other places. It was great. I was exposed to stuff I didn’t know existed. It opened my mind to the fact that music is more than just Western music.”

While in college, he also had another formative experience when he toured as a member of rapper Snoop Dogg’s band. During the ten-week academic quarter, he says he’d sometimes spend five weeks on the road.

Doing his homework would prove to be a struggle.

“This was before everyone had laptops,” he says. “I had to turn this paper in, and most hotels had a business center. This one place didn’t have a business center. I needed to write an email to my teacher, and I went back to the room. They had a controller next to the TV that I had to use. A screen would pop up with the whole alphabet on it, and you could type one letter at a time. I wrote this whole paper like that. I told the professor, ‘You have to give me an A. This is dedication.’ There was a lot of that. I was figuring out how to be in school and play.”

After college, he and his musical peers regularly toured and recorded with other artists. As a result, when Washington put together the band the Next Step, he made sure had two of everything at his disposal just in case someone was unavailable.

“I added people like [bassist] Miles Mosley and [keyboardist] Brandon [Coleman], and it became a bigger group because we were all so busy, so if someone was missing, I wanted it to be okay,” he says. “At that point, it was a quartet or quintet. We had one gig where I didn’t think the band would show up, so I invited the back up musicians. Everyone ended up showing up, and that’s how I got into the double rhythm section. I thought that sounded so cool.”

That ambitious mentality carried over to 2015's The Epic, a three-disc album featuring the entire band. With its heavy drums and soaring strings, the opening track, "Change of the Guard," sets the tone for the often atonal album.

“I didn’t know it would be three discs when we started the project,” Washington admits. “I knew I wanted it to be a big band. I just decided I wanted to make a real album that represents who I am.”

One highlight, the beautiful ballad “The Rhythm Changes,” features singer Patrice Quinn who croons like Billie Holiday; her voice pairs nicely with the song's delicate string arrangement and Washington's tempered solo.

“It’s a song I wrote a while back,” Washington explains. “Patrice and I grew up together. She’s from New York. She came to L.A., and I met her in 1999 or 2000. She just had a really amazing voice. We used to play this gig, and she used to sing with us. She really liked that song. We got together and came up some words and once we added her voice to the song, we realized that’s how we needed to do that song.”

In the wake of the album’s release, Washington worked with rapper Kendrick Lamar on his To Pimp a Butterfly, one of the most notable hip-hop records of the past decade.

“I finished my album in 2014, and I was working on some stuff with [producer] Terrace Martin for his album,” he says. “I had him hear my album with the strings, and he was asking me about how I wrote it. He didn’t know I was so far into composition. He brought me in to hear Kendrick [Lamar], and I was blown away when I heard what he was doing.”

For the live show, Washington will bring an eight-piece band to town. He says expect plenty of improv when he plays as part of JazzFest.

“We keep it wide open and spontaneous,” he says. “I always read the audience and the vibe of the city, and where we’re at. I don’t like to lock things in with a set list. It’s something that happens in the moment. All the tempos and how we play the songs happen in the moment.”

Tri-C JazzFest: Kamasi Washington, 6 p.m. Saturday, June 24, Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., 216-771-8403. Tickets: $30, playhousesquare.org

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