Kamasi Washington: Fists of fury wield the saxophone
Spiritual revolutionary of jazz talks Bruce Lee, infinite potential, and heaven and earth
Kamasi Washington: “I feel like I’m just taking the music that comes to me and trying to make it as beautiful as I can.”
In the constellation of Kamasi Washington, creativity is capturing the complexity of the human id via the medium of saxophone. But there’s no such thing as a part-time quantum leaper, and you don’t travel into the deepest crevices of the psyche without a bigger set of tools. There has to be huge choirs to represent a million brain processes. You need a backing crew of musicians with comparable superpowers and the spirit of Sun Ra on your side. Just ask Washington, jazz composer, celestial wanderer, cryptic philosopher. His latest album, Heaven and Earth, captures the duality of man and this thing we call existence, while reaching for the outer edges of the galaxy and transcending planes of existence in a way that’s smooth on the ear and edifying for the soul.
In notes accompanying the album, Washington laid out its key theme: “The Earth side of this album represents the world as I see it outwardly, the world that I am a part of. The Heaven side of this album represents the world as I see it inwardly, the world that is a part of me.” And so Heaven and Earth represents the way we imagine the world, the way we experience the world, and how these two sides of reality can caress or even become intertwined. Yet there’s something cosmic about Washington’s latest tome, like the man has access to the two realms suggested in the title, as well as parts of the universe only previously seen by Ra, one of his clear stylistic forefathers.
According to Washington, he hadn’t intended to probe these heady themes. Instead they were revealed to him as music flowed and recordings were laid on to wax.
“That’s when I started to think of this idea of how the way we imagine the world and the way we experience it, sometimes they [seem] opposing or separate when they are actually intertwined,” says Washington, speaking over the phone from Los Angeles. “Our imaginations and experiences and how when you imagine the world being a certain way, it starts to become that way.
“I was looking at the songs I was writing, I was realising that about myself – that I have these really distinct mindsets about myself. I can kind of be very present and very distant at the same time. The distant side of myself has a much bigger influence over the present side of myself than I really realised. I was listening to the music and thinking about what we were doing and discussing as a band and what was going on in my life, that’s how I came up with that concept.”
The distant side of myself has a much bigger influence over the present side of myself than I really realised
It was the songs Fists of Fury and The Space Travellers Lullaby that acted as the spearhead for the theme. Fists of Fury is a cover of a song that appeared in the 1972 Bruce Lee film of the same name. Washington was drawn to the film and song as someone who views life as a never-ending struggle.
“We were in the studio and I was listening to [Fists of Fury] and I had already kind of thought about that. And we were listening to The Space Travellers Lullaby and that’s when I really thought about the other side of myself – [the side that] views life as this place of never-ending potential. I made that correlation.
“I think the reason why I see life as this never-ending struggle is because I imagine it having endless potential. If you have endless potential you want a never-ending struggle to be able to use that potential; that’s when I put those two things together – like, ‘Oh okay, my thoughts and my imagination are shaping my reality’.”
Set in early 20th-century Shanghai, Fists of Fury ripples with the era’s tensions between China and Japan. One scene sees representatives of a Japanese dojo present a Chinese martial arts school with a sign that reads “Sick Man of East Asia”, a historical reference deployed in the movie as a show of Japanese dominance. It’s left to Lee’s character, Chen Zhen, to brutally smack all of his school’s enemies back down, symbolically restoring dignity to the Chinese people. He literally makes the Japanese eat their words, forcing the “Sick Man of East Asia” sign down his rivals’ throats.
The song features the lyric: “And when I’m faced with unjust injury/Then I change my hands to fists of fury.” It’s about freedom and retribution – and perhaps the need for violence in the righteous pursuit. But what does changing your hands to fists of fury mean to Washington?
“The more universal message of the film was the fact that you had all these people who were waiting at Bruce Lee’s school that he came up in. His teacher was wrongfully killed and they were being mistreated and everyone was waiting for someone else to do something about it. And the idea was that we should just wait it out and just wait and not do something. So that idea of waiting for your problems to end when you understand that you’re always going to have problems, they don’t go away.
Hands of fury
“Either you deal with them – you change your hands to fists of fury – and fix your problems and do something about them yourself, or you suffer behind them,” Washington continues. “I don’t want to live my life to necessarily overcome struggle but when I am going to hit struggle throughout my life, I face it head on. So that’s turning your hands to fists of fury – changing yourself from being passive to being active.”
Leimert Park in South Central Los Angeles is the origin point – the arena where young Kamasi found his creative soul teased out of his body. He grew up in nearby Inglewood during a time when the region was viewed as both a byword for urban decay and, via gangsta rap and movies like Boyz n the Hood, one of the planet’s most famous pop culture epicentres.
It’s not called South Central anymore. The name was changed to South Los Angeles in 2003 after a proposal by residents who felt there was a negativity attached to the words “South Central”. “The news would make you think that it was this horrible place,” says Washington. “As a person who lived there, you take on that mentality.”
It was in Leimert Park that Washington found artistic solace. It’s a creatively diverse arena, studded with bookstores and music clubs. Painters, drummers and poets are regularly seen on the street. It was where Washington first met jazz legend Gerald Wilson, one of his most significant mentors. The tenor sax became Kamasi’s weapon of choice.
For an early example of Washington’s musicality see the 2004 album Young Jazz Giants. Recorded with Thundercat, Ronald Bruner, Cameron Graves and Ryan Porter, with an appearance from Terrace Martin – all of whom remain bright stars in Washington’s orbit – it showed the crew’s dedication to classic forms. The record received a quiet release on Birdman Records and quickly disappeared. But even as he struggled to find a large audience, Washington kept the faith.
“I always believed in what I was doing with a group of musicians that were my friends that I always believed in,” he says. “I always believed that we had music that was important, that would speak to people and that would move people. It just seemed like we hadn’t had an opportunity to share music with people or get it outside of LA.”
Earlier this year saw the release of Porter’s The Optimist – a lush, streetwise jazz record that encapsulates the excellence of this clique. Featuring Washington, Graves, Miles Mosley and Tony Austin, among others, the record was recorded back in 2008 and 2009 in The Shack – a studio Kamasi built in his dad’s garage. I have seen the future and it’s a couple of clever young hustlers formulating a business plan: sell tickets to this seemingly innocuous structure that sits right under the LAX landing strip. Pilgrims will pay good money to see the place, the two entrepreneurs figure.
“It’s cool to me that a record from The Shack is being distributed worldwide,” says Washington with a smile. “I love Ryan’s music and it was good times, it was fun. We actually recorded a lot of that music back then. We didn’t have any record deals or anything like that. I was playing with Snoop [Dogg] at that point so I was making some good money so I built a little studio in my dad’s garage. We would just come back from off the road and just go and record, not thinking of it for any other reason than we could.”
Washington first laid the tracks that would become his album The Epic in late 2011. But it was working on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, released in 2015, that gave him extra clout. With his collective, which operates under the name The West Coast Get Down, by his side, Washington parlayed that goodwill into a 172-minute jazz classic. It was his moment to seize and he snatched it with an iron grip.
“I looked at it as an opportunity to share my music with the world,” asserts Washington. “I’d already seen how the world had received Thundercat, he grew up with us too in that same group of musicians that all grew up in South Central LA. We were all in Leimert Park park together, there were like 12, 15 of us. I always really believe in it, so for me surprise isn’t necessarily the word but definitely joyful and appreciative.”
Since The Epic’s release in 2015, Washington has frequently been credited as revitalising jazz, restoring jazz, revolutionizing jazz – choose your own hyperbolic synonym. What’s undeniable is that he’s making some of the genre’s most vital music. But how do these huge tags make him feel? He’s primarily of the opinion that most analyses of jazz pre-The Epic were missing out on what was happening in his hometown.
Part of the puzzle
“What was in Los Angeles was missing from the overall scope of what people consider the condition of jazz. I feel like we had something in LA that was part of that puzzle that was not necessarily being paid attention to. We always felt like, ‘Man people will say certain things about the music, but we’re kind of doing that over here. It’s just people don’t know about it.’”
I feel like we had something in LA that was part of that puzzle that was not necessarily being paid attention to
Now that he has raked in the plaudits that eluded him for so long, does Washington think about his broader jazz legacy?
“In a lot of ways I feel like I’m just taking the music that comes to me and trying to make it as beautiful as I can,” he says. “You can’t really predict or control how people will receive that music. A legacy is a lot of times determined by how people accept your music. And sometimes people’s legacy starts late or starts early or they last a long time or a short amount of time. As a musician, I’ve never taken an approach of wanting to try to control that because I don’t think that I can. All that I can do is try to make the most beautiful music I can and what happens from that will happen.”
Which brings us back to Heaven and Earth, his statement of faith, and an album that finds joy in the seeming limitlessness of human potential. When I ask whether he feels his music would be much different if you deleted the spirituality that underpins the LP, it sparks the longest pause.
“There’s a lot more spiritually that isn’t intertwined in music,” he finally answers. “Even people who don’t believe in spirits or God or anything like that, God and your spirit is still involved in your music. It’s a part of how we’re tapped in together. I think it’s probably why it’s universal. When you’re in a room together with people who are enjoying music together, there’s a connection you feel with them. I think that is a spiritual connection.
“I guess it would have changed my music if I was born in a different place and lived in a different culture, different experiences growing up. I grew up playing in church and that shaped my music a lot and who I am as I person . . . But at the same time I do feel the music does come to you, so maybe the same music would have came to me no matter what, no matter where I grew up or who I was around, or what my experience was – that music was going to come to me.”
Kamasi Washington plays Beatyard in Dún Laoghaire on August 4th. the-beatyard.com