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A saxophone player for Herbie Hancock and Kendrick Lamar releases a new album

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Kamasi Washington has been the go-to saxophone player for everyone from Kendrick Lamar to Herbie Hancock, and Washington's own band has produced some of today's most vital jazz. He recently released "Fearless Movement," which he's calling his dance album. NPR Music's Rodney Carmichael has more.

RODNEY CARMICHAEL, BYLINE: It's been nearly a decade since Kamasi Washington arrived in epic fashion.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAMASI WASHINGTON'S "ASKIM")

CARMICHAEL: Complete with big backing choirs and heavenly string arrangements, custom outfits that made him look like a cross between tribal chief and cosmic traveler and the most fiery sax solos this side of Coltrane.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAMASI WASHINGTON'S "ASKIM")

CARMICHAEL: But the rebirth in jazz he's rightly credited with sparking, it almost got upended three years ago by another birth, his first child.

KAMASI WASHINGTON: Kind of my identity is like, oh, I'm a musician. I'm a, you know, artist, all these other things. It's like that got pushed back. And it's like, who are you? Oh, I'm a father.

CARMICHAEL: "Fearless Movement" is the sound of Kamasi learning how to be a dad. He told me this radical shift in his life, it led to a pretty radical shift in his approach to music.

WASHINGTON: This record, probably more so than any other album I've ever made, is kind of attached to who I am, where I am in this very particular moment because my own thoughts and ideas are not at the forefront, someone else is. It kind of turned inward on me (laughter). As I make music, a lot of times my daughter is in the room, running around, you know, being a kid. And it's odd that - I don't know - it makes me hear music better (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF KAMASI WASHINGTON'S "PROLOGUE")

CARMICHAEL: On the cover of his new album, Kamasi stands tall, like a quiet storm. His 3-year-old daughter is on the cover, too, a joyous blur of laughter literally running circles around him.

WASHINGTON: Oh, yeah, on the album cover? Life (laughter).

CARMICHAEL: An album inspired by so much movement couldn't be contained by genre constraints either.

WASHINGTON: To me, genre is just a word. Jazz is just a word. You know, James Brown, his band was full of jazz musicians. James Brown definitely loved jazz. And so we use the word funk for his music, but we could've used the word jazz. And that's why, like, mixing genres or mixing things and this and that and that, it's like, well, they're already mixed, you know?

CARMICHAEL: The "Fearless Movement" album is totally rhythm-driven. And it showcases a continuum of Black music from jazz to funk to hip-hop. They all just naturally bleed into one another. But the title also speaks to Kamasi's growth. For him, being fearless meant overcoming the temptation to take every song over the top in signature Kamasi fashion.

WASHINGTON: You know, you start hearing that little thing in your ear like, well, let's just make the arrangement. You don't got to record it (laughter). Just write the string arrangement, Kamasi, you know, and just see how it sounds, you know? But I knew that the music wasn't asking him for that.

CARMICHAEL: Now, one collaborator forced him to throw out all his plans, the rapper-turned-flutist Andre 3000. When he showed up for their studio session, Kamasi says Andre brought a whole bag of flutes with him.

WASHINGTON: And we actually had a bunch of songs written already and see what he wanted to kind of jump on. But every time he picked up an instrument, he'd play something that I felt like, that's what we should do. And so he did it, like, three times. He'd pick up one thing and play something. I'm like, oh I felt, I felt - and he was just trying to show us what the instrument sounded like (laughter). So I'm like, man, we should just make something up right now, and that's what we did.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAMASI WASHINGTON & ANDRE 3000'S "DREAM STATE")

CARMICHAEL: Other well-known heavyweights show up and show out, too, from George Clinton to Kamasi's longtime LA jazz scene coconspirators Thundercat, Terrace Martin and more. But Washington's biggest collaborator by far on "Fearless Movement" is a total newcomer. His 3-year-old daughter actually co-wrote one of the songs on the album - kind of.

WASHINGTON: She would get up every morning and just play piano. And usually she would just kind of play random stuff. But this particular day - it was the first time she did this - she realized that if she played the same keys, the same notes would come out. For her it was like a revelation. She went like, (mimicking piano). And she looked at me like, (gasping), so I recorded it. She played it about four or five times, you know, and then I took it and kind of, like, turned it into a song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASHA THE FIRST")

THUNDERCAT: (Singing) Now my heart is free, staring back at me.

CARMICHAEL: That's Kamasi Washington adjusting to the new rhythms of life one daddy-daughter dance at a time.

Rodney Carmichael, NPR Music, Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASHA THE FIRST")

THUNDERCAT: (Singing) Light shines from the tree. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.