By Dave Pehling

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Saxophonist Kamasi Washington brings his talented group the Next Step back to San Francisco this weekend, headlining August Hall on Saturday for a night of intense, forward-thinking electric jazz.

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While Washington has had a meteoric rise since 2015, the adventurous band leader has been making a name for himself for over two decades. A precocious musical talent, Washington studied at the prestigious Alexander Hamilton High School’s Academy of Music in Los Angeles before getting accepted to UCLA on a scholarship to study with the Department of Enthnomusicology.

Washington would perform with noted faculty members like guitarist Kenny Burrell and drummer Billy Higgins and began independently releasing his own albums in 2004. Equally adept with jazz and hip-hop — he has collaborated with his hero Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock as well as such rap luminaries as Nas, Snoop Dogg and producer Flying Lotus — Washington was a major contributor to Kendrick Lamar’s landmark 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly. The album earned universal critical acclaim and ended up winning multiple Grammys.

Washington released his own celebrated three-disc opus The Epic on the Brainfeeder imprint run by Flying Lotus just two months after Lamar’s album hit stores, garnering equally high praise. Working with members of his extended West Coast Get Down collective, songs on the The Epic interweave elements of John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders’ fire-breathing ’60s exploration, Herbie Hancock’s spiritually minded electric Mwandishi ensemble and the funky global groves of NYC collective Oneness of Juju.

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In 2016, Washington and his band became an in-demand attraction at international music festivals, playing sets at Coachella, Bonnaroo, Chicago’s PitchforkMusic Festival and San Francisco’s own Outside Lands, where the band’s electrifying early Sunday set was a high point of the day (if not the entire weekend). Even as some of his collaborators branch off to record their own bands — most notably bassist-turned-vocalist Thundercat and keyboardist Cameron Graves and acoustic bass player Miles Mosely — the gravitational pull of Washington’s creative power has kept most of those players in his orbit and contributing to his latest opus, the ambitious sophomore album Heaven and Earth.

Managing to match if not surpass the complexity and sprawl of The Epic, Washington’s 2018 release on Young Turks Records is split into two hour-plus halves (not including the album’s special bonus 40-minute companion EP, The Choice) and offers up listeners another heady dose of Afro-futurism. Musically, the effort nods to the costumed cosmic pageantry and choral vocals of Sun Ra’s Arkestra while delving deep into ecstatic modal exploration and transcendent themes.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has kept him off the road for most of 2020, the saxophonist has remained busy, releasing the soundtrack EP for Becoming, the Netflix documentary on former First Lady Michelle Obama, and the Dinner Party EP recorded with the new all-star collaborative project featuring Washington, keyboard player Robert Glasper, multi-instrumentalist and rapper/vocalist Terrace Martin and hip-hop producer 9th Wonder. Earlier this year, he released the new song “Sun Kissed Child” as part of The Undefeated’s Music for the Movement series as well as a cover of the Metallica song “My Friend of Misery” to the charity tribute album, The Metallica Blacklist.

On Saturday, Washington brings his ensemble featuring vocalist Patrice Quinn, keyboard phenom Brandon Coleman, powerhouse bassist Mosley and dueling drummers Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner, Jr. to August Hall in San Francisco as part of Metallica’s 40th anniversary “San Francisco Takeover.” DJ Dials spins an all-jazz set to open the show.

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Kamasi Washington
Saturday, Dec. 18, 8 p.m. $55
August Hall