Archive: Kamasi Washington
Ahead of his Irish show in the summer, here’s our 2015 encounter with the new school jazz kingpin
Kamasi Washington is coming to town. He plays Dublin’s National Concert Hall on June 29 next and it promises to be a heck of a show thanks to “The Epic”. This is his 2015 debut album, a three album opus full of colour and spirit and verve and all the rest of it. Back when the album was released, I spoke to him about his trip from Inglewood to “The Epic”, the influence of Malcolm X, the various musical allies he’s made along the way (Snoop Dogg’s backing band has proven to be quite a hothouse for new jazz musicians) and his buddies in the West Coast Get Down. The interview is below and you’ll find my review of his show in Berlin from November 2015 here.
Meet the musician behind the album of 2015 so far. His name is Kamasi Washington and the album is called “The Epic”. It’s epic by name and by nature, a 172 minute long record of beauty, imagination and endeavour.
It’s the kind of record you won’t meet every day. Barnstorming, grandstanding and soaring, “The Epic” sees the saxophonist pushing his orchestra, choir and band higher and further with every track. It’s a jazz record in sound, scope and spirit, but jazz imbued with hip-hop and electronic music and jazz played by a wide-eyed bunch of desperados throwing the most mesmerising of shapes.
The road to “The Epic” begins in Inglewood in Los Angeles. That’s where Washington grew up, the son of a professional musician father, who played with The Temptations, Diana Ross and others, and a science teacher, flute-playing mother.
“When I was a kid, there was always music in the house but music didn’t stick at first with me. I played the drums and then the piano and then the clarinet and I wasn’t that interested. My older brother was super-duper talented as a kid and everyone thought he was going to be the musician.”
Beyond the house, Inglewood featured gangs and violence and there was always a danger that a youngster like Washington could find himself involved because he had nothing else to do.
Then, two chance occurences changed things for Washington. “My cousin gave me a tape with Art Blakey and Lee Morgan and that’s when I got into jazz.
“I also came across the autobiography of Malcolm X and it changed my perspective and I suddenly saw a whole other side of this area I grew up in. There was a whole lot of art and music going on in that neighbourhood as well as the gangs. I saw the area in a positive way that I was blind to before.”
He had found his calling. “Once you find your calling, you’re fine. In my neighbourhood, if you really got into sport or music or writing or maths, you were fine. It was the people who were messing around and didn’t have a purpose or a path who ended up getting in gangs and conforming to this negative way of life.”
After school, his real schooling began with a call-up to join Snoop Dogg’s band. “The first gig I ever did, the first big gig and tour, was with Snoop. I was 18 or 19 and Snoop’s band was hot, full of jazz musicians like Terrace Martin, Isaac Smith, Robert ‘Sput’ Searight from Snarky Puppy, Thundercat. I loved Snoop when I was growing up – I was into west coast gangsta rap so I was a fan anyway.
“But it wasn’t my plan to go on the road. I was really into jazz, I was practicing eight hours a day, I was gearing my plans to go more towards jazz. Then Terrace called me and when you’re a musician, you just want to play music so when a door opens, you go through it.”
He watched, listened, played and learned. “Snoop never asked us to play anything that was technically difficult but he had this super particular way he wanted you to play. It was as if he listened to music through a microscope and I had to pay really close attention to how I played. That affected how I play jazz because I’m now looking at music through a telescope and a microscope.”
He went on to play with others like Lauryn Hill, Chaka Khan, Stanley Clarke, Mos Def, Kendrick Lamar (you’ll find him all over “To Pimp A Butterfly”) and Raphael Saadiq and always found something to take away from the encounter.
“Lauryn Hill challenged us because she was super-demanding”, he notes. “She wanted to make her live band like a sample machine. Every day, there was a stack of CDs and she’d ask us to learn 20 songs. In a course of a month, I must have learned 150 songs for her.
“It made me learn music really fast and we had this confidence to grasp things really quickly. You were always learning, you were always pulling something new out.”
When he wasn’t on someone else’s payroll, he was playing music with long-time friends like Miles Mosley, Ronald Bruner, Ryan Porter, Tony Austin, Cameron Graves and Brandon Coleman. The West Coast Get Down would play in Hollywood’s Piano Bar, the Bar Sinister goth club and local churches.
“When we were kids, we’d play music all day and all night and we couldn’t get enough. Then, we’d get home from being on tour with Snoop and the same night, we’d play in a club and then go back home and play some more. Odd venues and gigs give you the confidence to be who you are and do what you do.”
Washington realised the time had come for the collective to make some musical statements of their own. “There was so much music we had, but we never had enough time to really give it the treatment we deserved. When Brainfeeder approached me about making a record, I’d already decided to take some time off and record my music the right away and give it respect.
“When I called the other musicians, they’d come to the same conclusion and we knew we’d to take time out to do this. It’s not that we weren’t recording our own music, but it always came in-between working with other people and we had to make our music the priority.”
In December 2011, the West Coast Get Down gang took over a Los Angeles studio for a month and put in 16 hour shifts. Around 190 songs were recorded, with “The Epic” just the start of things and Washington enthuses about the albums to come. “They’re all really good, but they’re so different from one another. People will find it hard to believe they’re all from the same sessions.”
What Washington hopes people get from “The Epic” and the albums to come is a feeling. “We all experience music on the same cosmic level. It gives me a feeling and I can’t really explain why I like it or don’t like it or why it works or doesn’t work.
“There’s even a myth that all musicians know what is going on and they don’t. People think when I listen to John Coltrane that I know what he is doing, but I don’t. I hear music the same as anyone else – I hear it and it gives me a certain feeling. Music communicates on a level that is deeper than the theory behind it. All the theory does is help you interpret what’s in your head. The music exists beyond the labels and descriptions and terms we use as musicians.
“You listen to James Brown and you hear that groove and you get it. The beauty of it is in the purity and not the simplicity. It’s beautiful because it’s this precise thing and not because it’s simple because it’s not simple. That’s what I liked about Snoop: he may be playing just a bunch of notes, but how he is playing it is so complicated when you break it down. Music is a complicated thing. It’s also a very human thing and we were built to grasp it.”