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MPMF Preview: Kamasi Washington

It's not too often that something new sets the jazz world on fire. We're decades removed from the successive Great Leaps Forward of the 1950s and 60s. Grammy winning albums are either by the legends of the old guard, many years beyond their landmark works, or by torchbearers of pre-fusion jazz. But every once in a while you get a new talent like Esperanza Spalding who pushes at the edges of the genre. And last year, we got Kamasi Washington. His colossal and aptly titled (it clocks in just shy of three hours) debut The Epic gained immediate attention well beyond the jazz scene and launched him onto rock festival stages at Coachella, Bonnaroo, and, this weekend, Midpoint Music Festival. 

The Epic came on the heels of Washington’s high-profile appearance on Kendrick Lamar’s epochal juggernaut To Pimp a Butterfly, Indeed, Washington’s work is informed by hip-hop (he employs a turntablist on stage), but it also draws upon funk, soul, R&B, and gospel. Washington is a virtuosic and inventive saxophonist, deeply inspired by the work of John Coltrane but also interested in breaking down walls and building new bridges. Several songs feature vocalists, including the amazing Patrice Quinn, who tours with Washington and is featured on the gorgeous “The Rhythm Changes,” amongst others.

But at the heart of the record is Washington’s incredible ensemble, consisting of the best and brightest of the Los Angeles jazz scene. They’re nimble and precise, but they also frequently rise to a cacophonous roar of joy. Washington expertly incorporates electronic manipulation into his performance, never stooping to gimmickery. Washington is truly an artist on the cutting edge, forging bravely and warmly into the unknown while still steeped in and celebrating the classics. If there’s one can’t-miss set all weekend at Midpoint, this is it. Come welcome a legend in the making.

Kamasi Washington
Skyline Stage, Midpoint Music Festival
6:15-7:00 PM, Saturday, September 24