Kamasi Washington: The Sky’s the Limit
The words ‘This Is Not A Moment, This Is A Movement’ adorn hoisted homemade placards. Screen printed slogans such as ‘Demilitarise the Police’ and ‘Am I Next?’ are emblazoned on t-shirts. People are clapping, singing, marching, fighting back in a united endeavour for judicial reform.
Since its formation in 2013 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman – the man who shot dead the unarmed African- American teenager Trayvon Martin – the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has gathered great momentum in its campaign against the racially-charged injustice that’s defacing the moral authority of America’s law enforcement. Demonstrations are frequent. Racial injustice is front page news. It’s given voices to the silenced and, with the support of esteemed cultural critics such as Greg Tate, has forcibly refashioned the music and arts industry on an international scale. Commercially successful US artists such Kendrick Lamar, D’Angelo and Beyoncé have revived a discourse within their respected fields of hip-hop, RnB and pop with radical street cred.
Another artist endorsed by Tate is Kamasi Washington – a debonair giant of a jazz saxophonist from Inglewood, California. Recently, Tate lauded Washington as the “jazz voice of Black Lives Matter”. It’s a lofty accreditation, but a responsibility Washington might be willing to take. “It’s definitely a compliment,” he tells me over the phone. “My life is an expression of Black Lives Matter. As an African American man, we live in constant danger of society’s prejudices against us. We’re painted as dangerous, that it’s OK to use lethal force against us regardless of who we are but based on how we look. That’s something I can never stop thinking about.”
Washington’s affiliation to the movement is endemic to his musical output. Last year, he released The Epic on Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder imprint. The album is a three disc, three-hour combustion of extravagant soul jazz, fusion, funk, free form, Coltrane-influenced orchestration and blank canvas experimentation. And despite employing a 20 person choir for the record’s choral cooings and vocal melodies, The Epic expresses its message with a brass-bound political backbone rather than with lyrics. “Music and politics are so connected,” Washington says, pausing for an extended duration of time, as if every word was a puzzle piece being put in to its rightful place. “Politics are policies that govern people. Music is the expression of thoughts that govern ourselves. It should go hand in hand, because one definitely affects the other.”
This synergy Washington speaks of is by no means newfangled, but a tool wielded by those strong enough to unshackle themselves from the confines of music’s commercial perimeters. The Epic is a trilogy loosely based on a sequence of dreams Washington had about a guard of a gate at the peak of a mountain. At the bottom of this mountain is a village where its inhabitants train to defeat the guard. This narrative, sheathed by its political radicalism, is an overwhelming dejection of the norm, a jazz album for jazz fans that has been recognised by a young mainstream audience. But for Washington, his jazz’s lawlessness is as natural as the changing of the seasons. “Definitely there is a question of whether to conform,” he says, highlighting the restrictions of other commercial artists, “Like the mentality that all music has to fit in to one singular format for people to be able to enjoy it. I’ve never agreed with that.
“But I know that argument’s there. I’ve felt that questionable pressure in my own music. Why’s it so long? Why’s it this? Why’s it that? The notion of being commercial, that somehow people want to hear the same thing, it just doesn’t work for me. The best music you can make is music that forces you to actively listen. Sometimes the business side of music forces artists to conform and to do what they think is safe. But making the best music you can make is the safest thing you could do. People may associate it with certain paradigms but just creating what’s within you, what you really think is dope, that’s the safest thing to do.”
“My life is an expression of Black Lives Matter”
One of these albums, Washington agrees, that forces you to listen is Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. Credited for playing alto saxophone on the record and arranging the track Mortal Man, Washington is reminded of the sobering experience of working alongside Lamar. His tone, however, suggests that we are far from realising the social gravitas of TPAB; a release Washington regards as “generation defining”.
“To make an album like that and to have it come out on that scale will change a lot of things,” he says. “I see the influence of that record. It may take a couple of years to realise because the album itself is so lush. It’s going to take future generations a little while to absorb. But it’s that same thing we were talking about; the notion that people need to hear the same thing. That album couldn’t be further removed from the classic construct of what popular hip-hop should be. But it is popular and it definitely opened the door for self-expression. Not to be overdramatic, but it’s one of the most important albums in the history of music.”
There’s a calm passion that rides with Washington’s answers and a degree of self-assured confidence that accompanies artists with decades of experience. The Epic may have been the band leader’s debut studio album, but the name Kamasi Washington can be traced back to the 90s. Born in Los Angeles, he was one of seven children of musician parents. It was his father, Rickey, that gifted Kamasi with his first set of instruments, including drums and a soprano saxophone. “As kids, myself and my friends were all pretty talented. There’s a gift and curse to that to kind of arrogance. People can say that you’ve arrived as a star much earlier than you actually have. My dad was always the voice of reality. I was always thankful for that. He’s super talented and placed me around musicians that were already established and gave me a very high bar to aspire to.”
Washington spent his early career cutting his teeth in jazz clubs, forming a successful school band, The Young Jazz Giants, and later touring with the likes of Erykah Badu, Raphael Saadiq, Ethic Cali, George Clarke and Snoop Dogg. If not for these formative years, Washington says, he would not be as competent as a saxophonist as he is. His progress saw him join L.A.’s West Coast Get Down collective (WCGD), spearheaded by upright bassist Miles Mosley, and lead his own ten-piece band, The Next Step, consisting of WCDG members and Stephen ‘Thundercat’ Bruner. All of which culminated in the creation of The Epic. No one was paid for the recording sessions in 2011. Instead, each musician contributed to the other’s personal projects. Everyone came away with more music than anticipated. Washington himself had the task of whittling down forty five songs to the seventeen that embody The Epic. Released four years after the initial recordings, he concedes that these songs have drastically mutated over time. “The staple way myself and The Next Step play is to never play the same music twice. It’s about the moment. Channeling everything that’s around us. My music has multiple personalities. The album is only one realisation of the songs.”
For now, Washington’s primary function is to further develop on The Epic’s narrative in a live setting. The search for a sound, he says, is “an expression of life,” and one that he refuses to stop expanding on. Alongside The Next Step players, the saxophonist remains both contemporary jazz’s trusty old hands, and one of its breakthrough rising stars.
“This is my own music, my own songs, my own style, my own expression,” he declares. “My past, living outside of public eye only to now share my sound with people is such a positive thought. You only get one life. Music is just a huge part of life so I choose to spend it doing something meaningful. Maybe what you do benefits to the construct of what people say music has to be. That’s cool too. But there are so many people in the world. We don’t have to do the same thing. Could you imagine if we did? All seven billion of us?”