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5 records that changed my life: Kamasi Washington

Del Cowie

Kamasi Washington's The Epic was one of the most critically acclaimed albums of 2015. It was also one of the longest. The tenor saxophonist's cosmic and spiritually infused album clocked in at just under three hours, introducing jazz to new audiences while reverentially referring to the jazz of the past.

For Washington, who has been honing his craft as a musician since he was a child, the sudden acclaim he has been receiving comes after years of grinding out gigs as a side musician with other accomplished childhood friends like Thundercat.

“Everybody knew us and everybody knew about us but people didn’t just look at us as artists," Washington told CBC Music. "We were just people who played with a lot of people.”

In addition to The Epic, Washington's saxophone and string arrangements on Kendrick Lamar's Grammy-winning To Pimp a Butterfly also increased his profile.

Given the eclectic range of his music, it's interesting to explore the music that inspired Washington's own sprawling album. CBC Music caught up with Washington as he played Canadian shows in support of The Epic (he plays the Ottawa Jazz Festival on June 22) to find out the five records that changed his life.

1. 'Transition,' John Coltrane

"Just as a saxophone player for sure, the record that influenced me the most in the way I play saxophone in my approach to the instrument was this John Coltrane record called Transitions. That record for a long time was like the only thing that I listened to. [Laughs] Not the only thing I listened to, but it was something I listened to every day for a long time 'cause the sound I heard in my head and wanted to sound like it was so close, it wasn't exactly it, but it was so close to it. It was very impactful for me, in particular the song 'Transition,' he takes both solos. That album, definitely. It's just like what really impacted me on the saxophone."

2. Symphony of Psalms, Stravinsky

"For The Epic in particular, when I was thinking of the sound of the strings and the choir, it was really Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms — that is really the sound I was really thinking of. It was like, 'Man, if I could put that sound on top of Transitions' and then add some other stuff. People like Fela [Kuti] and Marvin Gaye. So it was like a mixture of a whole bunch of stuff for me. There's a record, Stravinsky conducts Stravinsky, that was really impactful for me on that level."

3. 'Nancy Jo,' Gerald Wilson

"Amazingly I was into so much of his music before I played with him. In high school I was in this band called the Multi School Jazz Band and we played one of Gerald Wilson's arrangements and I was like, 'Woah.' Like, 'People make big-band music like that?' So then I got to UCLA and he was a teacher there. [Wilson] asked me to come to New York with him and that's really when I really learned from him. He brought me to his house to learn some songs and I just started asking him questions and he was just, 'Oh that is this and this is that chord' and 'This is how you make nine-part harmonies with horns and sound good.'

"And talk about someone who was a major contributor to the creation of jazz, basically. He used to babysit Count Basie's dog. He was friends with John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy babysat his kids. He was friends with Duke Ellington. Just getting that kind of history first-hand gave me the confidence to be myself because Gerald's whole thing was about individuality. If you told Gerald Wilson that he sounded like anyone, even though he was in his 90s, you might have had to have a fight and that really impacted me.

"It's like 'Oh, it's not about who I sound like anymore. It's about 'What do you have to say? What are you talking about?' And I learned that from Gerald Wilson first-hand."

4. When Disaster Strikes, Busta Rhymes

"When I was a kid I was really into hip-hop. West Coast gangster rap was my thing. Dr. Dre, NWA, I was really into it. About 11 or 12 I started playing saxophone. I got really into jazz and had a little bit of a jazz snob era in my life where I only wanted to listen to jazz. That was my thing. When I got to high school I had a friend, Robert Miller, who was a drummer. He gave me this Busta Rhymes record When Disaster Strikes and that's what brought me back to hip-hop. I was like, 'Dang!' I hadn't been listening to any East Coast hip-hop, it was all West Coast. Then I got into [A] Tribe [Called Quest] and Nas, but it was that Busta Rhymes record When Disaster Strikes that really brought me back to hip-hop."

5. Legacy, Ali Akbar Khan

"When I got to UCLA, I got exposed to a lot of music from around the world and that was one of the most expansive things. To realize that music doesn’t just come from the U.S. Music comes from other countries. Really? [Laughs] And there was an artist called Ali Akbar Khan. I was in a class and it was like they would give you these CDs with different artists on it and you get to study each one and he was one of those artists on those discs and I loved his music. I went out to try and find his records and I found this record called Legacy. And yeah, that record, it really kind of brought that love of Indian classical music [by] studying it on my own and it just opened my mind. And now when I go to Amoeba Records, I mosey over to the 'world' section and flick through those records."