Washington won't be playing at the Fair Grounds again this year, but that could be for the best.

kamasi washington photo
Kamasi Washington

In contemporary jazz, few names ring out as loud as Kamasi Washington. The Los Angeles-based baritone saxophonist, band leader, composer, and cosmonaut towers above the scene, his massive frame dwarfed only by his prodigious chops. This weekend, he’ll park his spaceship at One Eyed Jacks, where he has early and late shows scheduled for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights.

Washington held a similar One Eyed Jacks mini-residency last year during Jazz Fest, but has yet to play at the Fair Grounds. As Jazz Fest welcomes more and more non-jazz headliners to its annual extravaganza, its gates remain closed to contemporary artists who represent non-traditional trends within the genre, especially when those artists are from out of town--or worse, another planet.

Still, Washington’s presence in New Orleans is exciting in and of itself, as most extraterrestrial sightings are. He’s been a presence on the West Coast for more than a decade, coming up with Ronald and Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner and Steven Ellison (Flying Lotus) to name a few. He only started to gain national popularity in 2015, though, when he played on Kendrick Lamar’s genre-busting To Pimp a Butterfly and released his own de facto debut The Epic. Both helped launch him into the public eye, which is notoriously lazy when it comes to jazz and skeptical when it comes to aliens.

Rooted in history, The Epic still manages to be radical in more ways than one. Spanning three discs and three hours, its size alone is enough to scare away the casual listener. The tracks themselves are generally ten minutes or longer, and they build slowly. They take their time to resolve, testing their earthly listeners’ reportedly waning attention spans. References range from Sun Ra and Pharaoh Sanders to John Coltrane and Miles Davis, with maybe just a little Kenny G sprinkled in to smooth out the edges. Traces of hip-hop (the genre that got Washington’s foot through the stratosphere in the first place) are few and far between.

The album’s cast of characters is as extensive as its length and scope. Washington leads a 10-piece core band, often accompanied by a 32-piece orchestra or a 20-voice choir, or both at once. This army of ostensibly human musicians, many of whom he’d been playing with since his high school days in L.A., reportedly cut themselves off from society for a month in 2011 (where did they go?) and recorded almost 200 songs. The Epic was the first LP to come out of these sessions, and its greatest accomplishment is its cohesiveness. If anything, it is more controlled than chaotic, a testament to Washington’s skill as an interstellar navigator.

While some jazz purists dismissed The Epic as an overwrought rehashing of cosmic jazz experiments that went wrong in the ‘70s, their voices were far outnumbered by those who heralded it as the gospel of a new musical messiah.  Realistically, it falls somewhere in between these poles.

Washington’s sound is visionary. While he certainly hails from Sun Ra’s cosmic realm, he draws inspiration from his earthly predecessors just as successfully, and breaks new ground by incorporating his panorama of influence seamlessly into his own aesthetic.

Still, he sometimes falls victim to the classic existential struggle of any alien who has ever tried to live a human life.  In these moments, his duality saturates his sound. Far from the free jazz his intergalactic ancestors helped pioneer, Washington’s music is heavily tonal. His band is not an Arkestra, and the more instruments he adds onto it, the more homogenous it can sound, even if each contributes something new and different on its own. When 60 separate ingredients mesh together in a delicious cake, it's a baking masterpiece. Jazz, however, is not baking. Sometimes, it’s more interesting to throw in a sardine or two and leave out some of the sugar.

As an arranger, Washington revels in sonic cross-currents (sometimes to a fault), weaving whirlwinds of timbres and melodies into harmonic tapestries. As a performer, his pure talent is much clearer. At small venues like One Eyed Jacks, his live band never reaches its most Epic proportions, so Washington and his peers have more room to showcase their musicianship. Freed from the orchestral ambition of the album, they take long solos and stretch their instruments to their furthest reaches.

Two of the best moments at One Eyed Jacks last year came when Miles Mosley bowed an entire bass solo, and when Brandon Coleman transformed his keyboard into a keytar and played some of the most impressive licks of the night. On The Epic, there are glimpses of moments like these, but they are much clearer in an intimate live setting, with the album’s grandiosity stripped away.

Washington’s new EP, The Harmony of Difference, premiered at the Whitney Biennial in March, alongside paintings by his sister Amani and an enigmatic video directed by A.G. Rojas for the project’s first single, “Truth.” It will be released to the public this summer via Young Turks. Much like The Epic, “Truth” is a lot to process all at once. It hits many of the same pitfalls too, becoming so rich and palatable that it turns bland and fades into background noise. The video, in similar fashion, is a montage of gorgeous vignettes that lack any real through line other than showcasing how wonderful all our differences are (hardly an original message).

Tropes aside, “Truth” will almost definitely sound incredible when Washington plays it live this weekend. Without the baggage of the video or the weight of a cosmic choir, it’s got the potential to be a great track, and Washington’s live ensemble is sure to do it justice. If intimacy is the key ingredient to the Kamasi cake, One Eyed Jacks is the perfect place for him to set up shop. And if Jazz Fest waits another year or two to come around, so be it.