Words by:
Photography: Nick Walker
Photography Assistant: Ryan Moraga
BTS Video: Tobey Lee
Creative Direction: Michelle Helena Janssen

Kamasi Washington is a revolutionary figure in the L.A. jazz scene, celebrated for his soaring, cosmic improvisations – and his work with everyone from Kendrick Lamar to Michelle Obama. On Fearless Movement, the saxophonist’s first full-length in six years, he finds inspiration in more earthly pleasures: family, connection and the act of living

The covers of saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s last two albums cast him as a towering, mythical force in music. On his 2015 debut, The Epic, he floats surrounded by imagined planets and speckled stars, while 2018’s follow-up, Heaven and Earth, frames him between a placid cerulean lake and mountainscape, his feet miraculously hovering just above the water. In each image he is alone, crowned by his afro, adorned in medallions and clutching his talismanic tenor sax: a jazz warrior seemingly from outer space.

They are striking, fantastical concoctions bringing to mind the spiritual jazz imagery of forebears like Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders or Alice Coltrane. Yet, they also ring true to Washington’s own story. Over the past decade, the six-foot-tall bandleader has become a key proponent of a new L.A. jazz scene, a figurehead championing a distinctly maximalist sound unlike any other improvisations that have been released in the 21st century. It is Washington’s fast-paced, frenetic horn that you hear on Kendrick Lamar’s seminal 2015 rap-G-funk-jazz fusion record To Pimp a Butterfly, for instance, while his combination of choral music, orchestral arrangement and searing improv on The Epic led him to be labelled “the jazz voice of Black Lives Matter” by the late critic Greg Tate. 

This ambitious and dynamic music has been performed everywhere from gargantuan festivals like Coachella and Glastonbury, to New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, the L.A. Philharmonic and, more recently, onscreen as the score for Michelle Obama’s autobiographical documentary Becoming. On stage, Washington is often accompanied by his ten-person strong L.A. musical collective the West Coast Get Down, yet he labels the process of making his concept-laden music a “very solitary” activity. “Music used to be mostly me by myself,” he explains. “I was alone, thinking, dreaming and writing.”



Now, though, things have changed. Look closer at the cover for his latest, third album, Fearless Movement, and you will notice a difference. Washington is still standing strong, front and centre, but gone are the planets and majestic scenery, replaced instead with a brightly coloured background of painted abstract shapes. His feet are planted firmly on white ground, his saxophone has been replaced by a wooden staff, and off to his left is the blurred figure of a child screaming with joy. He is no longer alone.

The image depicts Washington’s three-year-old daughter, whose birth fundamentally shifted the way he sees himself and his music. “I changed from being a musician to being a father. I’m still practising for hours every day but she’s often there with me, playing music and listening,” he says in a soft drawl over a video call from his L.A. home, dressed down in a beanie hat and filling the screen with his warm presence. “She’s included into the process and I’ve become used to working with another energy infused into the room.”

That energy is so pronounced that the second track on the album, Asha the First, was created directly from his daughter’s experimentation in Washington’s music room, where he is speaking now as the Californian sun streams across its wood panelled walls. “She’s been into playing piano since before she could talk. When she was almost two she was with me hitting the keys and suddenly realised that if she plays the same notes, the same sound will come out,” he says with a smile. “She didn’t know that you could repeat a sequence until that moment, so she ended up playing this melody five or six times that I then recorded to turn into a song.”



The result is an eight-minute funk odyssey, underpinned by the cacophonous double-percussion of Ronald Bruner Jr. and Tony Austin. Soaring above the rhythm section, meanwhile, is Washington’s typically liquid, lyrical soloing and his daughter’s keening harmony, born from her instinctual improvisation. It is a track with a dense and forceful sound that is liable to knock you sideways if turned up to the right volume – an effect that Washington has harnessed for a specific purpose across the entire album. 

“I’m 43 now, which definitely sounds old, and it’s given me a shift in perspective,” he says with a laugh. “I’m less interested in what I’m playing and more in how it affects the listener and the world. About halfway through the making of the album, I realised I wanted to make a record that would inspire people to move. I wanted music that people would react to, rather than just listen to.”

Indeed, throughout the album’s 12 tracks, the unifying thread that ties together melody, counterpoint and blistering improvisation is the thump of complex and often competing rhythms, challenging the listener to be moved by their vibration. On Get Lit there is the sludgy slap of a funk groove with kick drums scattered through trashy cymbals, while Dream State develops its anxious rhythm through a shuddering synth and double-time phrases on Washington’s sax. Prologue spends eight minutes working through machine-gun snare hits and breakbeats, and Lines In the Sand explodes with a free-jazz double drum solo over duelling piano and organ phrases. It might be a strange thing to say about a work of music, but there is hardly any silence in the album’s 86-minute runtime. Instead, listeners gasp for breath in the brief breaks between tracks, readying themselves to be propelled once more as the band strikes up, ready to let loose. 

The attraction to movement and reactive music is one that has been with Washington ever since he was a child. Growing up in the same South Central L.A. neighbourhood that he lives in now, Washington’s jazz musician father Rickey encouraged his musical education from an early age. First picking up the drums as a three-year-old, before moving on to piano, clarinet and saxophone, Washington became enthralled with jazz after a cousin lent him a mixtape full of drummer Art Blakey’s compositions when he was 11. From then on, Washington began playing in high school jazz groups as well as dropping into jam sessions in the arts hub of his local Leimert Park neighbourhood, watching everyone from hip-hop artists Freestyle Fellowship to Afrofuturist composer Horace Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra.


“Watching this music live, you understand that it isn’t about sitting, nodding your head and taking notes,” he says. “It has a connection to dance and movement. Once you feel the sound, it takes over you and you can’t help it. I see that in my daughter – if she hears something and she likes it, she’s gonna move. All music is dance music, we just let that connection go sometimes.”

Nowhere was this clearer than when Washington would spend time as a child with his aunt, the dancer Lula Washington. “I basically grew up in her dance studio and witnessed the natural link between highly expressive, improvisational music and dance,” he says. “She created a piece with one of my biggest heroes, McCoy Tyner, and when they performed that, I remember feeling that art should always be like this. The idea to do something similar has been swimming in my head ever since.”

This connection between what we hear and how we move finds its fullest expression in the videos accompanying Fearless Movement. In the visual for the single Prologue, Washington reunites with longtime collaborator A.G. Rojas to marshal dozens of masked dancers as they sweep through cavernous rooms of a house, presenting fluid movements and intimate moments of connection that produce an impressionistic narrative for Washington’s urgent melodies. “I’ve been dreaming of hearing my music and seeing people dancing at a high level to it, and that’s what Prologue was about – it was seeing the next iteration of what this music could do,” he says. “The best part was that some of the dancers we used were also people who used to dance with my aunt Lula.” 

As well as these intergenerational dancers interpreting his insistent rhythm, Fearless Movement sees Washington enlist an array of vocalists to add another layer of kineticism to the record. On Get Lit, Washington collaborates with P-Funk pioneer George Clinton, after a chance meeting at an L.A. art show led to a studio date that “took the funk level all the way up to the mothership,” while L.A. duo Taj and Ras Austin provide scattergun flows on Asha the First. Instrumentally, collaborations also come from powerhouse bassist (and Washington’s childhood friend) Thundercat, and rapper-turned-flautist André 3000 delivers a rare, meditative feature on woodwind for Dream State.  


The mix of sounds is one that mirrors Washington’s musical upbringing. “L.A. has historically had an overlooked jazz scene, which means its musicians used to play other genres, too,” he explains. “When I was coming up, I would play hip-hop, funk, R&B, rock, and all of that has now found its way back into my music. Having these collaborators on the record is just a natural reflection of me listening to my dad’s jazz at home and rap with my friends.”

Washington’s first tour while studying for his degree in ethnomusicology was with West Coast rap stalwart Snoop Dogg in 2002. Taking weeks off during term time to play dates across the country, Washington and the rest of Snoop’s band would often alternate between jazz and hip-hop while on the road. “We used to play [John Coltrane’s standard] Giant Steps at soundcheck and head to jazz clubs after the shows – it was all mixed in,” he says, laughing. “Snoop is a student of music and is passionate about all of it, so I’m sure he was happy that his entire band was jazz musicians. It felt natural.”

After making it past 40 and experiencing fatherhood, Washington’s work on Fearless Movement feels both like a full-circle moment to take in his life’s inspirations and a fresh step forward. “In the past, I was making music that was like scoring a movie in my mind – it was telling fantastical stories of planets that didn’t exist,” he says. “Since becoming a father and making it out of Covid, I felt here on Earth, in this time and with the people that are in it. I’m more grounded, and maybe that’s why I gravitated towards dance because of the way it speaks to our bodies and how we connect with each other.”

Feet planted firmly on the ground, Washington feels as emboldened as he has ever been to experiment and push his music in new directions. “We’re about to tour across the U.S. and the show is going to be different; it won’t be what people are used to me sounding like,” he says with a cryptic smirk. “This is a dance record so maybe we’ll play the clubs! I really enjoy the idea of being an ambassador and taking the music to people who haven’t necessarily heard it, or don’t really even know that they want to hear it. We’ll be out there.”

“Even when family isn’t there, it’s always in the music.”


He might be journeying into the unknown but Washington will have his family close by, in the tunes that have been inspired by them, and in person since his father Rickey is a touring member of his group. “I also play my dad’s saxophone, the second one he ever bought after the first got stolen,” Washington adds. “Even when family isn’t there, it’s always in the music.”

There are also countless new projects on the horizon: a graphic novel, a ballet, which will be choreographed by Lula’s daughter, and a score for the new anime by Cowboy Bebop creator Shinichirō Watanabe. “When you get a bit older, you start to see the horizon of your lifetime. I started to feel like, I gotta fit all these things in,” Washington says, gazing past the camera and out of the window next to him. “Our days are numbered. For me it’s not about quantity but wanting to know when my time here is done that I did the things that I really wanted to do. It makes me feel fearless.”

Above all the musical or creative projects Washington wants to complete, he believes the most important thing he needs to ‘do’ is the act of living itself. “As big as music is, and as impactful as it can be on the world, who you are and what you actually bring to the table from your heart is bigger than what you know on your instrument,” he explains. “Life is larger than music.”

With that, it’s time to get up, get out into the world and see what the sun-filled day brings. No doubt Washington’s daughter will be by his side, moving to the improvisations and discovering new ways to express her own ever-developing life in the process.


Fearless Movement is out on 3 May via Young