Kamasi Washington 2024
Photo: Vincent Haycock / Sacks & Co.

Kamasi Washington Sets Bodies in Motion on ‘Fearless Movement’

Jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s latest album, Fearless Movement, inspires motion and emotion by combining contemporary jazz with pop, soul, and rap.

Fearless Movement
Kamasi Washington
Young Turks Recordings
3 May 2024

The commercial survival of jazz often depends on artists transcending genres to draw in listeners from a broad musical spectrum. Fortunately, for tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington, that transcendence is a natural part of his musical vision rather than a tabulation of opportunity. His latest record, Fearless Movement, is less a conventional jazz album than a brilliant exploration of the hybrid potential in jazz, pop, hip-hop, and classic R&B.

Active in the Los Angeles jazz scene for the past 20 years, Washington made his name with the collective West Coast Get Down and the Gerald Wilson Orchestra. High-profile guest appearances with Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar (on 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly) built his reputation as a jazzman oblivious to musical boundaries. Washington’s solo albums, including 2015’s The Epic and 2018’s Heaven and Earth, were less concerned with showcasing his considerable chops than dramatizing his strengths as an ensemble leader.

Fearless Movement, Washington’s first studio release in six years, continues expanding his influence range. Half of the album’s 12 tracks emphasize instrumental jazz, while the others encompass a wealth of influences, from classic soul to contemporary rap. Harmonized voices carry the melodies, wafting in and out of tunes like a Greek chorus shining encouragement on the vocal and instrumental soloists.

Kamasi Washington likens the set to a dance album. “It’s not literal,” he explains in a press release. “Dance is movement and expression, and in a way, it’s the same thing as music – expressing your spirit through your body.” Although some of the music does inspire dance literally – soul and funk-inspired tracks pop up across the set – much of the record explores movement across cultural space and time.

A large cast of players joins Washington in the performances. Included are members of the West Coast Collective, including long-time collaborator Thundercat, and various guests – André 3000, George Clinton, Taj and Ras Austin, D Smoke, Patrice Quinn, Terrace Martin, DJ Battlecat, Brandon Coleman, and BJ the Chicago Kid. The guests help steer the tracks into various styles, from the rap tag team on “Asha the First” to Clinton’s funk-driven turn on “Get Lit” to the cosmic new age of André 3000’s flute on “Dream State”.

Kamasi Washington likes his arrangements big, bold, and brash – preferences apparent on three long tracks at the album’s front end. “Lesanu” evokes Charles Mingus-style polyphony with its rumbling rhythm, layered horns, and exuberant vocals. “Asha the First” follows with a darkened melody composed by Washington’s young daughter. Later, the track morphs into a vocal and rap jam featuring Thundercat along with Taj and Ras Austin from the group Coast Contra. Third up is “Computer Love”, a cover of a snappy 1986 hit by Zapp, given a deeper soul treatment by Washington’s crew. 

The set changes tack on the fourth track, “The Visionary”, a horn-driven interlude, followed by the solid funk of “Get Lit”. Clinton’s guest vocal adds to the P-Funk vibe of the song. A lengthier track, “Dream State”, cools the tempo and mood as André 3000’s flute spins ethereal magic against Washington’s sax. “Together”, featuring BJ the Chicago Kid, reiterates the 1970s R&B feel, this time with a slower tempo embellished by Ryan Porter’s soulful trombone.

The remaining five tracks reassert Washington’s love of jazz. Various instrumentalists show their chops by trading solos on “The Garden Path” and “Road to Self (KO)”. A cosmic mood echoing Pharaoh Sanders and Sun Ra infuses “Interstellar Peace”, before “Lines in the Sand” brings back the singers for another spiritual romp. “Prologue” concludes the record with a climatic progression built on complex polyrhythms.

With a running time of 86 minutes, Fearless Movement demands commitment from the listener through its stylistic twists and turns. The first half, emphasizing vocals and choral hooks, is likely more accessible to general listeners than the second half. But fans of contemporary jazz will find plenty to enjoy throughout. Only the 13-minute “Road to Self (KO)” overstays its welcome with a raft of solos better suited to a live context.

Kamasi Washington is on tour this spring in North America to promote Fearless Movement. The dynamism and energy of the album make it ideally suited to live performance, with plenty of room to vary the arrangements. Its cross-pollination of genres has already drawn critical attention from outside the jazz community, promising to make Fearless Movement one of this year’s most acclaimed jazz releases.

RATING 8 / 10