CLIMBING KAMASI’S MOUNTAIN – BELIEVE THE HYPE

With the release of his impressive 2015 debut album ‘The Epic’, L.A. jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington successfully merged his 1960s-vintage style with a switched-on modern sensibility, garnering glowing reviews. Rhythms’ reporter Seth Jordan caught up with him at Bluesfest to judge the live results for himself.

It might be considered ‘crazy-brave’ to record your international debut album by augmenting your own compositions and 10-piece jazz ensemble with both a 20-voice choir and a 32-strong orchestra. And riskier still to release it as a massive 3-hour, 3-CD set, grandiosely titled The Epic.

But taking that giant step is exactly what Los Angeles-based tenor sax-man Kamasi Washington did in 2015, and with few exceptions the jazz critics of the world responded with almost unanimous praise and excitement, grasping for sufficient superlatives to describe the monumental multi-disc. Hailing the work as ‘genius’ and a new musical landmark, some even went so far as to compare it’s potential impact to the classic recordings of John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Towering new jazz stars don’t appear all that often these days, and time will tell if Washington is really “the anointed one”, but listeners all around the world are opening their ears to this extremely gifted 35-year-old player, who until recently was relatively unknown.

Born into L.A.’s rough South Central neighbourhood in 1981, and still living today in the same nearby Inglewood house that he grew up in, Kamasi’s father Rickey was an old-school jazz saxophonist who shifted his focus to Christian music in the ‘80’s. Originally a drummer, as a young teenager Kamasi immersed himself in his father’s vintage jazz record collection, picked up the sax, practiced hard, and learned to play Wayne Shorter and Coltrane solos note for note. At High school he and his friends attempted to steer as clear as possible from the urban gang violence that surrounded them, instead forming a hip musical collective called West Coast Get Down. Eventually Kamasi embraced the 1960s black consciousness message of Malcolm X, along with the dynamic, exploratory and spiritual jazz of that period – exemplified by Trane and other like-minded musicians.

Washington’s broad musical knowledge and strong playing ability earned him a scholarship to UCLA studying ethnomusicology, where he explored many non-western music cultures from around the globe. While still at university he was invited to join L.A. hip-hopper Snopp Dogg’s touring group, where he learned a different type of groove. After a stint with the big band of veteran jazz trumpeter Gerald Wilson, Kamasi went on to perform in the bands of both Chaka Khan and Lauryn Hill, and most recently he made a major contribution to the success of hip-hop star Kendrick Lamar’s multi-Grammy-winning 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly.

Finally concentrating full-time on his own compositions and playing, and following up on last year’s unexpected worldwide success of The Epic, Washington’s current touring band is still almost entirely made up of his childhood friends, as well as his father. With his reputation growing daily, Kamasi’s star is most definitely on a rapid rise.

After witnessing his 90-minute Saturday night set on the big Mojo Stage at Bluesfest – and despite my instinctual wariness of acts that are hyped as “the next big thing” – I found myself genuinely moved and impressed by Kamasi’s performance, as well as by the obvious musical telepathy and longstanding camaraderie between him and the other players.

A big man, with an even bigger Afro hairstyle, sporting West African dashiki robes and a carved walking stick, as expected Kamasi’s live set was grand, expansive and very powerful, with his large tenor tone leading the way. Definitely harking back to an earlier Coltrane-esque period, the music was not only improvisationally creative and technically proficient, but also contained an undeniable sense of spirituality – an ingredient not often employed these days in popular music. It was strong in-your-face jazz, but with a contemporary street sensibility that made it absolutely relevant and essential.

After his long set I caught up with Kamasi backstage for a chat….

SJ: Kamasi, when you put The Epic together, were you anticipating the type of response that it has received? Did you know that you had created something of musical importance?

KW: “I didn’t really anticipate it, but I definitely believed in it. We’ve actually been working on this music, this sound for quite a long time. L.A is kind of like a microcosm of people from all over, and we’ve been playing it there for some time, and the response has always been strong and really receptive. So we’ve really wanted to get it out there further because we knew it would work. But it was hard to do, because we’re all working musicians, trying to make a living playing in other groups too, while at the same time developing our own music. But I always felt in my heart that we had something to share that was special. So we really got motivated and together we made it happen.”

SJ: There’s been a fair bit written about your inspiration for The Epic. You had a quite symbolic series of vivid dreams awhile back about a group of young village warriors who lived at the foot of a mountain – and at the top of that mountain there was a gate which was protected by a guard. The warriors all challenged the guard, but one by one they were all defeated, until the final challenger was finally able to win through. Hence the name of the opening track on your album is ‘Change Of The Guard.” How’s that big dream going Kamasi? Do you feel that the young jazz warriors have finally taken over from the old jazz Gatekeepers?

KW: (Laughs) “Well I feel that the doors have finally been opened to us, and that we’re now almost in unchartered territory, and that’s both exciting and maybe a little frightening! For a long time, if you asked us what we wanted to do most, it was always ‘To tour our music around the world.’ And here we are doing that now, so it’s time to begin developing new goals, to start creating new music, and that’s a really inspiring challenge. Music sometimes feels like you’re climbing a mountain in the dark, you don’t know exactly where the top of it is. You keep setting your sights up to the next level, and then when you get there you realise that the mountain is so much bigger than you originally thought it was, and there’s so much more to do. It’ll be very exciting to see what comes next.”

SJ: Seeing you playing with your father in the band tonight on soprano sax seemed to be very much part of that symbolism. The young and the old, the mutual love and respect between you two, and the blending of musical styles.

KW: “Yeah, I’m really so glad to have him be part of this. I’ve always known how talented my dad is, and I always wanted him to get out there and play his own music too. He made a big sacrifice when we were younger, to not go out on the road, but instead to stay home and be there for us. So to be able to bring him along now for his first time being in Australia, in Europe, it’s a big thing for him. And this is going to allow him to put out his own albums too, so it’s never too late y’know?”

SJ: This band really still works as a collective doesn’t it? Your name may be the one in the program and on the record, but the interaction between you all is very intuitive and equally shared, isn’t it?

KW: “I’ve know these guys forever. I met the drummer Ron Bruner and his brother, our bass player Thundercat, when I was just three years old! Some of the others I’ve known since Elementary school, others from High School, so we all grew up together in the same area, we’ve been developing this music together for a long while. That’s why we play like this, it’s almost like one musician that can play all these different instruments at the same time. We always know what the others are capable of, but we can still surprise each other too, and that helps to keep the music fresh.”

SJ: “Your music seems to be centered in a very specific time and place. It has that definite 60’s Trane time-space as its basis, even thought it’s mixed with a more modern feel too. But it still feels very much a Black music. I’m wondering what it’s like for you to be playing primarily to a white audience here in Australia and perhaps in Europe? Does that feel any different to performing it to an audience back home that’s more connected to and aware of your own roots and history?”

KW: “Not really. My music is black because I’m black, and anyone’s music is obviously always just an expression of who they are. There are certainly shared cultural experiences, shared trails that people from my black community have gone through together and understand. There’s the history, those shared backgrounds and experiences that can be very deep. But at the same time, even within that, every person is on their own unique journey, every person lives in their own unique world. So when you’re playing music to different people from different backgrounds, you’re reaching out, you’re sharing your knowledge and hopefully you can connect with them. Because even though our lives may be very different, we’re all humans together on this planet. So in my music I’m sharing the experiences of my neighbourhood, and what I went through there, and it’s very beautiful for me to see people being able to relate to that, even though their own experiences have been very different. Our differences are beautiful and real, but they don’t disconnect us, they just make us bigger. To know that my music can touch people here is wonderful thing. It means I’m tapping into something more universal, and that’s ultimately exactly what I want my music to do.” 

The entire 2-hour NPR program of ‘Kamasi Washington’s The Epic In Concert’ can be viewed at www.kamasiwashington.com/video

 

Kamashi Washington's new album, The Epic, comes out May 5
Kamashi Washington’s new album, The Epic, comes out May 5