Kamasi Washington and the grand arrangement
by Allen Thayer
The first time Kamasi Washington touched a saxophone, he was thirteen. He was no musical novice, already playing drums, piano, and clarinet for years, but one night after one of his father’s rehearsals at the house, Kamasi picked up his dad’s soprano sax and played his favorite song at the time, Wayne Shorter’s “Sleeping Dancer, Sleep On.”
“I was somehow able to play a song from my heart,” says Washington, “and I got an early glimpse of the euphoria that music can bring.”
Today, Kamasi Washington plays saxophone on tour and in the studio for a who’s who of classic soul, jazz, and hip-hop artists, most recently or currently: Harvey Mason, Chaka Khan, and Stanley Clarke. He also maintains numerous residencies in the Los Angeles area with a deep roster with deep talent called the West Coast Get Down. His latest release, The Epic, is a three-disc, three-hour jazz odyssey complete with twenty-person choir and a thirty-two-piece orchestra. I did the math: sixty-two people are doing something on The Epic in the most intense and full moments on the record, which there are many.
Back in 2010, when Kamasi reconnected with Steven Ellison aka Flying Lotus, whom he’d known from the jazz world, Kamasi walked away with a creative blank check for an album on Ellison’s trendsetting record label Brainfeeder. The seventeen songs on the album were culled from an epic (see the pattern here?) month-long studio lockout—for which the extended West Coast Get Down players canceled their tour plans, leaving the likes of Lauryn Hill, Babyface, and Stanley Clarke short on talent. The sessions gleaned the recorded output of three terabytes of tracks—190 songs, forty-five of them Kamasi’s.
His quest to carve and shape an epic release from an overwhelming amount of music dominated Kamasi’s life, in between bill-paying tour and studio gigs, since the music was recorded in December 2011. “In a way,” he says, “what pushed me to do something so large was that I knew it had a place to go, because it took a lot of my resources to do it. I won’t say it was a gamble, but I went all in, and it’s cool if you know that it’ll have a place to go.”
Like labelmates Stephen Bruner (a childhood friend) aka Thundercat and Flying Lotus, Kamasi listens to his unconscious mind, though his breakthrough was likely the result of exhaustion and insomnia and not psychedelics. “There’s this dude on top of this mountain,” Washington reveals about the recurring dream that inspired him, “and he stands in front of this gate and guards it. There’s lots of carnage around him; he’s been defending this gate for a long time. At the bottom of the hill, there’s this little bitty village with all these people, and all they do is train to challenge this dude, so if they beat him, they get to become him.” The next day, he started writing the string and choir parts for “Change of the Guard,” what became the first song of seventeen songs all connected by real and imagined dreams that make up The Epic.
I guess we’ll never know if the The Epic would have been as warmly and enthusiastically received if Kamasi hadn’t just been tapped by hip-hop prophet Kendrick Lamar to play saxophone and write arrangements on the critically acclaimed and commercially successful To Pimp a Butterfly, but it means more people get the chance to hear some heart-pounding, Gary Bartz-via-Busta Rhymes jazz heat, so I’m not complaining.
How did you decide to release The Epic the way you did, with seventeen songs? Was Flying Lotus always down with the expansiveness of the project?
When we finished, I went back to his house to let him hear [all of the music], and I don’t know if we listened to all forty-five of the songs; we definitely skipped through and listened to a lot of the music. Of the forty-five that we did, all of them were dope. I needed to sift through all of this and figure out what I really, really love. When you write a song, you have a vision for it, a vision for how you imagine it being. The seventeen that ended up on The Epic were exactly how I envisioned them to be.
By this point, I had been listening to this music a lot. And I got pretty attached to those seventeen songs, and I was having a hard time really figuring out what I was gonna take off. So I was talking to people, listening to it, letting other people hear it. And then a friend of mine said, “You should just start writing the string stuff; just do it, and that will reveal to you what the album should be.”
So I started writing to “Change the Guard.” That was the first song I started writing strings to. I was listening to the song a lot, because I was trying to write around what we did, and not have it conflict. It was hard because I was touring a lot with Chaka [Khan] and Harvey Mason, so I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep, so that’s when I started having that dream. I kind of got obsessed with the dream a little bit. So I finished writing [the string and choir charts] for “Change of the Guard,” and then I started working on “Magnificent 7.” And then every time I started working on something, I started to have another little part of this dream. I think I got so into the first one that it happened randomly, that I kind of started making up the other ones and forcing myself to have these dreams or daydreams. And then I started writing the story out and it was kind of like [a] dual thing that I was doing.
By the time I had finished the album musically, I hadn’t mixed it yet. I had gotten pretty attached to the story that had all the songs in it. I didn’t know if Lotus would be down to do it or not. So I told him the whole story: “I wanna put all of the songs on there because it feels like one thing.” And he was just like, “Yeah,” and kind of laughed and then said, “I knew you were gonna do that. When I heard you were gonna focus on the seventeen songs, I knew you were gonna do that.” And then he was like, “All right, let’s do it.”
Given Brainfeeder’s reputation, was there ever any pressure to make your album sound more like Flying Lotus, with more electronic and explicitly futuristic elements?
No, it was actually the reverse. When he asked me to do the record, the first thing I asked him, kind of thinking that, was, “Do you want me to make something like a Brainfeeder-type record, like what you and [Thundercat] did? What kind of record do you want me to make?” And he said, “Whatever you wanna make.” [laughs] He never put any kind of stipulations at all. “Do what you do. You gotta love what you do, so do what you would do.”
Taking that thread, what was it like playing on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly? A lot of the players on that album also identify as jazz musicians, but very few of you get the chance to play jazz, right?
Exactly! And it’s been like that for years, since the early 2000s. Even Snoop’s band was full of jazz musicians. In one sense, we all identify as musicians first; so it’s not like I’m a jazz musician. I’m a musician, but jazz is the music that inspired me to want to become a musician.
Is this the same thing coming back with hip-hop mixing with jazz, like A Tribe Called Quest or De La or Guru’s Jazzmatazz?
I think it’s the same thing, but I don’t think it’s coming back—it never stopped. I was watching this documentary about James Brown, and [his band members] were all jazz musicians. And when we were all playing with Snoop back in the 2000s, his whole band was jazz musicians.
Anytime you’re dealing with sampling, like when Kanye sampled Ray Charles…we put these labels on music that kind of divide it, but the reality is that music is all really connected. To me, James Brown and Ray Charles are jazz. We just put a different name on it. If Jelly Roll Morton is jazz and John Coltrane is jazz, then how do you legitimize excluding James Brown? And then if you’re not excluding James Brown, then how do you legitimize excluding Parliament? And then once you include James Brown and Parliament and everything that is already considered jazz, then so much of any hip-hop that’s had samples on it, is sampling jazz, really. So the spirit of the music has always been there. You don’t find too many musicians, especially who play funk or hip-hop on that really high level, that would say to you, “Oh, I don’t play jazz.” There’s a few of them, but very few of them. I think what’s different about what’s happening with Kendrick is that the barriers are getting broken down. The music exists over the barriers, but it’s like the barriers are in how we perceive it and how we organize it and how we talk about it. With Kendrick, people are identifying with the connection [to jazz].
So why does To Pimp a Butterfly sound different than those earlier jazz-forward hip-hop projects?
All of us had always done records with hip-hop artists—all these same guys, from Eminem to Snoop to Puff Daddy. But it’s the elements [that are different], what they want us to play. They [usually] only want a little bitty piece of what you are. What Kendrick did that was so unique was, Kendrick wanted your whole thing; he wanted you to play yourself. So, for me, that was the trippier part. I was like, “Wow, he’s really into letting these guys put their whole spirit into this music.” It was really beautiful, and I didn’t expect that. You don’t expect someone to say, “Do whatever you want to do.” You just don’t expect that. You expect someone to say, “Do this particular thing and don’t do anything more than that. Don’t make it too musical.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that.
You said recently in an interview that it’s frustrating, the expectations placed on younger jazz musicians to know everything that came before them. Where’s the space for originality?
There’s a lot of expectations in jazz, in particular, for you to kind of prove yourself or display the lineage of what you do—and that lineage is over one hundred years. It’s so big! First you have to prove that you have a mastery of this lineage, and, secondly, you’re going to somehow display this lineage in everything you do. You’re going to have so many influences and so many people in what you’re doing that you’re gonna have very little room for who you actually are. If I have to show John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Dexter Gordon, you know what I mean? Coleman Hawkins, Mel West, Gene Ammons, Grover Washington… [If] I have to show all of those saxophone players and show that I have learned and mastered everything that they have done in my music, then what are you really hearing from me? I’m squished in there somewhere in the middle. So I just don’t do that. I don’t ascribe to that. “Show us you can play bebop, show us you can play hard bop, show us you can play swing, show us you can play the blues, show us you can do this, show us you can do that.” I just don’t even try; I just kind of do what I do, and the ironic thing is that people then hear all those things anyway. People are constantly telling me, “I can tell you listen to this, I can tell you listen to that,” but the funny part is I try not to do that. The fact of the matter is that those musicians are inside of who I am. Any musician who’s been living on earth, all of that music is inside you, so there’s no real point in trying to display it, you know? But so many people do, so when you hear music that doesn’t feel very personal, it’s because everyone’s displaying the same people. How many times can you hear someone play like Charlie Parker and why? Why do you even care if I can or I can’t?
Are there musicians that don’t come up that are big influences on your sound?
Billie Holliday. She’s a huge influence on me, and I don’t think anyone’s mentioned her. [She’s a] ginormous influence on who I am, musically. Maceo and James Brown, like that whole thing down to Michael Jackson, a lot of the rhythmic stuff. I was really into Busta Rhymes at a point in my life, and I used to try to play his verses on the saxophone, so some of the tonguey stuff you hear me doin’, it’s actually coming from there. Ben Webster [influenced] the vibrato that I use, and when I growl, it’s a Ben Webster kind of growl, not a Clarence Clemmons kind of growl.
You played a lot with another West Coast jazz legend, the late Gerald Wilson. How did he influence your music?
He was a major influence on me, musically and personally. He was the first big jazz artist to give me a gig and the only one for years and years. He actually had me in his band. He was my favorite composer in high school when I was coming up. I learned a lot. He had this whole approach to dense harmony, like his whole approach to eight-part harmony. The whole idea I had of adding strings and choir to my album kind of came from him. I had this band that kind of came together randomly, and we recorded ourselves, and I let Gerald hear the band. Brandon Coleman was playing some keyboard strings…and Gerald knew I had a composition emphasis at school, so he said, “Man, you should start writing some orchestra stuff and have an orchestra play with this band!” And he kind of just said it in the wind, but it stuck with me.
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