A year ago, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. In April, Freddie Gray died while in police custody in Baltimore. Two months later, Dylan Roof walked into a black church in South Carolina and gunned down nine people attending a prayer service. It’s been a year of civil unrest, sorrow and re-examining the relationship between black people and law enforcement.
Jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington, 34, carries all of this with him. While his solo debut album, “The Epic,” doesn’t directly address those events, it feels shaded by them.
“A lot of times, when those things happen, I do feel shaken to my core,” says Washington, who finds the album “healing.” “There’s a deeper level of healing that needs to happen for the world in general. There’s a mass of people who are broken.”
For nearly three hours across 17 tracks (and three CDs), “The Epic” unfolds with percussive tidal waves and shrieking wind instruments. Triumphant wails give songs like “Askim,” “The Magnificent 7” and “The Rhythm Changes” a rich gospel flair. “Seven Prayers” is a prayer for all the continents and “Malcolm’s Theme” honors slain civil rights leader Malcolm X.
Washington, who’ll perform a headlining set at the Howard Theatre on Wednesday, started playing sax at 13 and studied ethnomusicology at UCLA. After his freshman year, he recorded an album with Young Jazz Giants from South Central Los Angeles. During his sophomore year, he went on a national tour with Snoop Dogg. Now, Washington has his own 10-piece band — called The Next Step — featuring multiple drummers, upright bass players, keyboardists, horn players, a vocalist and a pianist.
The mostly instrumental “The Epic” is another in a string of recent releases that celebrate blackness while reaching for deeply creative sounds. Washington is featured on rapper Kendrick Lamar’s landmark “To Pimp a Butterfly,” producer Flying Lotus’ “You’re Dead!” and bassist Thundercat’s “The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam.” Each album flirts with experimental jazz in some form and has passed muster with critics and fans.
“The Epic,” which was released in May, came at a time when message-driven music from black artists was sorely needed. It would have come sooner — it was completed in the spring of 2014 — but the release date was pushed back five times, Washington says. Among other things that stalled the release, he stressed over the album’s mix and the artwork. Given its message and current events, it seems “The Epic” dropped right on time.
“I think it was God giving me a good look, like, ‘Hey man, the world is gonna be ready for this, at this time,’ ” Washington says. “It’s like some other power was keeping it from coming out. It took a while, but it came out when it was supposed to.”
Howard Theatre, 620 T St. NW; Wed., 8 p.m., $25.
More music stories: