Kamasi Washington speaks softly and carries a big saxophone. Seriously, the thing is huge. Anything less would look like a toy in the hands of LA’s new king of jazz. Larger still than the saxophonist’s imposing frame is the impression that he makes upon a room: heads turn, conversations cease, and everyone listens. Kamasi’s got something to say.
Lost in the breakout success of last year’s phenomenal The Epic was the fact that Kamasi Washington has been putting down roots in the LA music scene for a very long time. Outside of his most notable collaborations, including a heavy presence on celebrated albums by Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar, Washington has backed Snoop Dogg, Gerald Wilson, and Ryan Adams.
Such a pedigree isn’t unusual for a session musician, but few have ever made the leap to a solo release as widely acclaimed as The Epic. Surrounded by an all-star cast of collaborators, Washington delivers a three-hour survey of jazz in the 21st century, somehow managing to simultaneously make it accessible (and immediately understandable) to many who had never previously listened to more jazz.
We met in the green room of an under-construction event space in Knoxville, Tennessee, converted into a makeshift jazz club for the purposes of Big Ears Music Festival. Reclining on a couch, Kamasi was calm and conversational, taking great care to make sure his stories were captured accurately but rarely raising his voice above a murmur in their retelling. Fifteen minutes after we parted ways, he took the stage and blew the lid off the place. —Corrigan Blanchfield
Starting with your origins, you’re an LA native and you’ve known the Bruners [Stephen, a.k.a. Thundercat and Ronald, a drummer credited on The Epic] for… ever? Did you all have a relationship before music?
Kamasi Washington:I mean, we’ve been doing it forever. I met Ronald when I was like three. Before potty training [laughs]. We’ve known each other since we were little little kids, but they kinda got serious about music before I did. So we knew each other, but we started really really hanging when I was in, like, 9th grade probably.
Did you guys ever have a rock band or something, or was it always jazz?
Kamasi Washington:Well we were always into different styles of music. Jazz was definitely at the center, but I play a lot of gospel music, you know; we were all into hip-hop, we were all into other sounds like those. But jazz was definitely the foundation.
It seems like every LA artist grew up there with everyone they play with, like it’s the only city people don’t feel the need to leave for New York from.
Kamasi Washington:It’s probably the only American city that’s comparable to it, the only one that really serves as a Mecca of the arts. There’s a lot of people that come into LA as well, but it’s more of a career decision than an artistic decision. No one’s, “oh, I’m gonna move to LA to find myself and make it.” But, the people that live in LA have got this kind of vibe that you can only get in LA; you know, if you leave, even if you go to New York, you can’t find what you’ve got in LA. That’s probably why there’s such a large group of us here now growing.
I think a lot of people have this idea that jazz is stagnant because the genre’s canon was formed too early and quickly. Since then everybody’s trying to be John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk…Your career is obviously an argument against that, but would you consider your style to be progressive?
Kamasi Washington:Yeah, but also the success of any genre is gonna depend on expectations from the listeners, and so jazz was being received as something really narrowly in line with all those classic albums. So there have always been people working against that, but for a long time they weren’t getting attention because it’s not what people who consider themselves jazz fans were looking for.
The thing is, it’s not something you can copy—no one can play like John Coltrane, no one can play like Miles Davis. You just can’t. So when you try to do that, you make it sound dated. There have been people innovating all the way through, it just didn’t always reach people. But they still went out and made a cool thing…It didn’t sound like anything else.
Have you ever run up against the perception that jazz has to be this big highbrow thing, that it needs to be protected?
Kamasi Washington:Yeah, for sure. For us, we had to really venture out and not play at jazz clubs. They just weren’t places that people wanted to go. We had to take the music to places that weren’t jazz clubs. We’d show up and people would look at us like, “What are you guys? What kind of music are you about to do?” Like every other band that was playing that night was all indie rock bands or all DJs or something.
What we found, though, is that once we started playing people would be like, “Oh man, I love this, this is dope—what is it?” Sometimes they’d never been exposed, or had this whole other perception of what jazz was. And honestly jazz has a lot of offshoots that could’ve stayed jazz, like funk could’ve easily been called jazz. And even a lot of rock and roll from the ’60s could’ve been called jazz. It’s all so arbitrary, this, “Alright, that was jazz but now we have something different.”
People get worked up about that shit.
Kamasi Washington:Yeah and then there’s the word—“jazz.” The idea that people get upset about what music is being called, I mean the word doesn’t mean anything. Like you walk in your bedroom screaming “that’s not a quilt, that’s a comforter!” or whatever you want to call it and get passionate about it. I mean you can call it a comforter if you want to, doesn’t change what it is.
Obviously your album’s been a huge success, but I see all these write-ups calling it accessible. I feel like there’s a lot of jazz out there in history that’s accessible, but do you think modern audiences have been primed to appreciate it by its integration into hip-hop and other more popular genres?
Kamasi Washington:I think it’s a mixture of two things—people are more open-minded now because information is so accessible. People want to go out and form their own opinions. They’re not as primed to just accept opinions that are given to them. So that’s one thing we’ve got going for us. When the album dropped, it wasn’t, “Oh that’s jazz, I don’t like it,” it was, “Oh, this thing just came out, let me check it out and see if I like it.” And also I do think that we play a little differently.
Everyone in the band has played in so many different musical situations that there’s a lot of little subtle elements in there that are familiar to people, something they hear played and go like “Oh, that does sound like something I like.” So the album itself might not be accessible, but a lot of the elements that it’s constructed from and are added to it sound a lot more comfortable. It gets people to loosen up and start to experience the music the way they should, which is to just listen to it. In the end, all styles of music are really hard to grasp at a technical level. You just need to get someone’s ear for long enough that they can start to work out what’s going on.
I’m sure you had some new listeners out there that were like. “Wait, ‘Clair de Lune?’ Oh shit, Ocean’s Eleven—they’re at the Bellagio, the heist just went off.” And now they’re fans. On the topic of open-mindedness, can you talk about your relationship with Brainfeeder? I imagine that Flying Lotus is a pretty open dude musically.
Kamasi Washington:[laughs] They really left the record to me. They didn’t know they were getting a 172-minute record until I handed it to them. But it was cool, man—I went in to show them the record, had this pretty good argument set up to defend why it needed to be as long as it was, and Lotus just laughed, actually, and said, “I knew you were gonna do something like this.”
I’ve read a bit about the album coming out of these huge, marathon sessions back in 2011. Do you tend to create in bursts, or was that more of a one-time thing?
Kamasi Washington:The band is full of guys that are very in-demand and hard to get to. So we had this opportunity where we could get everyone together, and we were all just trying to take full advantage of it before the Babyfaces and the Snoops, and the Stanley Clarkes, whoever else starts pulling from the pile. It’s hard to say no, people have families and a living to make. I feel like I’m always writing and coming up with stuff that I’ll use someday, but there hasn’t been anything else like that where we’re recording every single day.
Did anything from those sessions get wrapped up in your work on You’re Dead! or To Pimp A Butterfly, or were those entirely separate?
Kamasi Washington:Entirely separate. You’re Dead! was kind of happening at the same time a bit, but To Pimp A Butterfly happened after I was already done. I was done with The Epic in March of 2014 and I didn’t really start working on To Pimp A Butterfly until December of that year. But who knows, really, if what I did on that may have been influenced.
Kendrick Lamar calls you up—had you guys interacted before? Did he have a specific part for you to play or did he just want someone else in the studio?
Kamasi Washington:Well Terrace Martin was actually who brought me. We were working on a record that we just put out recently—yesterday, actually—called Velvet Portraits. My record was already done, and we grew up together so I was showing him and he heard the strings and stuff and said, “Oh, man—I need you to do some stuff for this Kendrick record that I’m working on.”
I had no idea what he wanted me to do. It was really secretive, unmarked buildings and leave your ID at the door and stuff. That record was 70, 80% done when I came in and I was just blown away. So for me it was almost a challenge like, “here’s a great piece of music, go ahead and add something to it.” It’s just so delicate, so easy to mess something up, I was super conscious about not trying to ruin what was already so dope.
Did you take anything from those sessions or You’re Dead! that you were able to bring back and apply in a more straightforward jazz idiom?
Kamasi Washington:There’s a level of fearlessness that Lotus and Kendrick had in making those two records that I’ve tried to take to heart. I guess we’ll see when my next album comes out if it really stuck [laughs]. Really it’s just to keep moving forward. I mean both of them had come off of pretty successful strings of records, and then to come out with new records that were so against their grain is commendable. It shows artistic integrity.
I imagine with record sales so low nowadays that it’s really hard to give up the sound that you blow up on.
Kamasi Washington:Yeah! And it’s not just hard internally, but there’s this really heavy external pressure from labels like, “Do what you just did, that worked!” So to push through that and do something different…my hat’s off to them.
As an artist you’ve gotta be fearless—to really make some true art I don’t think you can be making it for balance sheet reasons. It sells what it sells, but you need to be trying to create something beautiful. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t anyway. You do the same thing and everybody’s on you, you do something different and it’s, “Why you changing it up?” It’s one of those things where you just have to follow your heart.
There’s such a delay, too—if The Epic is a 2011 record then what fans think of as the new Kamasi Washington is something you’re done with.
Kamasi Washington:That was the trippy thing for me, like we moved on from that and now it’s time to go back to it. But I’m kind of itching to get to this next record and now that’s old—that’s 2014 and then we had to abandon it to get to touring on The Epic. I have all these songs and that’s what I’m excited about, where I’m at now, I just need to find time to get into the studio and record them. It’s a good problem to have.
The unifying narrative of the album came out of a series of dreams, correct?
Kamasi Washington:The Epic, like the music, caused me to have a dream. I really wasn’t trying to make a record as long as it was, I was trying to keep it on one disc. I was having a hard time really deciding what was gonna be on the album and I decided on one —“Change of the Guard.” And while I was finishing that up, I had this crazy dream.
And it happened a couple times while I was working on that song, so when I finished it and I got to the next song I was like, “Damn, I need to have a dream for this one too.” So I started kinda forcing myself to have a dream, like before I’d go to sleep I’d put the music on and that became my process for every song. By the end I had this long story connecting everything and couldn’t get it any shorter. About halfway through I probably realized, “Oh, ok, this is gonna be a thing.”
Ever try and pitch the label on a crazy music video to go alongside the album?
Kamasi Washington:I’m working on a graphic novel actually, just writing it out myself right now and trying to find the right visual artist to collaborate with. I’ve got the story in mind though, like I told Lotus when I was presenting the record about how it goes along and kind of incorporates all of the songs.
Working in a primarily instrumental context, do you find it difficult to incorporate narrative or thematic elements in a clear enough way?
Kamasi Washington:I think at the highest level you’re trying to produce something that sounds a certain way to lead the listener to whatever you might be feeling—you can’t just assume that they’re gonna make a leap to your message straight away out of hearing your record. I almost think it’s better that way, it’s a different kind of communication.
You can use words to describe moments that you’ve had in love, but to really capture the action, the feeling of love, you have to create the environment. It’s like when I’m playing, I don’t want this voice to come over everything saying, “Don’t vote for Donald Trump.” What we wanna do is kind of pull you in, embrace you, and give you some love. Then you take that, apply it to an idea, and realize that you an idiot if you’re voting for Donald Trump. But I want the music to be a lesson that leads you to whatever the issue is in your time, not make it explicit and limit it to right now.