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The Epicness of Kamasi Washington and the West Coast Get Down

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Kamasi Washington and The West Coast Get Down at the Regent Theater. | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.

Earlier this month, more than three dozen, influential jazz, R&B and soul musicians took over the stage of the sold-out Regent Theater in downtown Los Angeles. With a soundboard manned by National Public Radio and the giddy anticipation brought on by global accolades -- Los Angeles Times profile, New York Times profile, Flea's twitter feed -- jazz tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington was finally getting the recognition he had worked so hard at. This wasn't the birth of a new era of jazz in Los Angeles. But it was a cosmic communion, and a breakthrough for Washington.

"I do feel an obligation to promote Los Angeles jazz," Washington says. "I was one of those people overlooked."

The origins of the evening's massive band, the West Coast Get Down, is a bit nebulous. The double-down rhythm section grew out of Los Angeles's Leimert Park. Washington, an Inglewood-raised UCLA graduate, booked a gig upstairs at Fifth Street Dick's coffeehouse more than ten years ago. When childhood friends -- bassist Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner, drummer Ronald Bruner, Jr., and keyboardist Cameron Graves -- informed Washington they couldn't make the gig, he called another trio, upright bassist Miles Mosley, keyboardist Brandon Coleman and drummer Tony Austin. Then to Washington's surprise everybody showed up. The formation stuck, later adding trombonist Ryan Porter, trumpeter Dontae Winslow and vocalist Patrice Quinn.

Kamasi Washington and The West Coast Get Down at the Regent Theater. | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.
Kamasi Washington and The West Coast Get Down at the Regent Theater. | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.

That core group can easily be linked to thousands of musicians around the world.

Washington toured with Snoop Dogg after college and Chaka Khan. Bassist Bruner, Jr. has worked for Kenny Garrett and Suicidal Tendencies. Mosley has had recording contracts since he was a teenager and even toured with Jonathan Davis of Korn. Austin has held it down for Santana and Willow Smith. But they have always returned to Hollywood's Piano Bar for their twice weekly residency.

Washington has been a towering local presence since the late 1990s. He was a vibrant burst of youthful firepower in the Gerald Wilson big band. He has toured with drummer Harvey Mason.

In the last decade he has performed under his own name at Walt Disney Concert Hall, LACMA and Grand Performances. And earlier this year he was an integral part of Kendrick Lamar's "To Pimp A Butterfly" ensemble, contributing string arrangements and some horn work. Finally, this spring a recording with his name as the headliner was coming out.

Washington's debut on Los Angeles-based Brainfeeder Records is making up for lost time. Called "The Epic," the album is nearly three hours long, spread across three discs. Through hard-hitting originals and a few unexpected left turns ("Clair De Lune," "Cherokee"), Washington presents a sound that is 21st century jazz. It is informed by hip-hop, brushed with a little reggae but wholly in the pocket, full of fire and sensitivity. Washington blares through the dense arrangements with unwavering confidence. It is as grand a statement as one could hope for from someone with so much to say.

"The record was playing in my dream," said Washington of the marathon recording sessions that took place back in 2011. "I would dream the whole three hour record. It tripped me out. I took it as a sign."

Kamasi Washington contemplates another work day. | Photo: Sean J. O'Connell.
Kamasi Washington contemplates another work day. | Photo: Sean J. O'Connell.
Kamasi Washington and The West Coast Get Down at the Regent Theater. | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.
Kamasi Washington and The West Coast Get Down at the Regent Theater. | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.

He also took it to his label boss Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus, and told him that all seventeen tracks had to be released together. Ellison, a cornerstone of the Los Angeles electronica scene, and an increasing advocate for the jazz world, expected that response and agreed to release Washington's vision in full. "Lotus shined a light and opened a door," Washington says, "he gave me the confidence to go all in."

Washington's armfuls of tapes were just part of the recorded output. All ten members of the collective are capable bandleaders with very different perspectives and many of them came away with recordings of their own from that original session. Brandon Coleman, on loan from the Mothership, has an album waiting. Bruner, Jr. has his own double-fisted project ready to go and Mosley and Austin have a duo called BFI that clobbers with funky precision.

Thundercat Lights Up Cape Town. | Photo by Sean J. O'Connell.
Thundercat Lights Up Cape Town. | Photo by Sean J. O'Connell.

So how long can the West Coast Get Down last? Will they perhaps splinter under the weight of some long-deserved recognition? How long can they continue playing twice a week in Hollywood? Thundercat was the first to step out with a pair of releases also for Brainfeeder showcasing his astounding bass work and dilated psychedelic "third-eye" influence. Those albums helped him become an in-demand entertainer, even headlining a tent at the Cape Town Jazz Festival last March, eschewing his usual chainmail for colorful dashikis. Washington is filling his calendar with tour dates reaching as far as New Zealand and with each spotlight-worthy excursion, the West Coast Get Down will become harder and harder to contain.

But Washington keeps spreading the group's gospel. "I'm making a point to tell everybody how amazing my friends are," he says. "Ronald Bruner is a genius. Brandon Coleman is a genius."

And the world is finally paying attention.

 


 

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