Kamasi Washington is a common link between two of this year’s most necessary records, and there’s a good chance you’ve heard one of them. The L.A. musician arranged strings and played saxophone on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which has sold around 600,000 copies in three months—not bad for a 79-minute opus that blends hot jazz, atomic funk, spoken word, West Coast hip-hop, militant politics, and Afrocentric positivity. But the other record might have pulled off an even more impressive feat.
Washington’s de facto debut, The Epic, has achieved consensus acclaim from the notoriously New York-centric jazz community while also crossing over to some non-jazz listeners, despite having no EDM fusions, no guest rappers, and nothing that would pacify a quaint cocktail hour. Granted, the 34-year-old’s association with Lamar and Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label has helped him become a topic of interest outside of his genre, but there’s no getting around the fact that The Epic is filled with three hours of music very much steeped in the jazz canon. Washington’s excitement over his new ambassadorship is especially crucial right now, when jazz has been deemed the least popular genre of American music.