Chances are you’ve heard Kamasi Washington whether you know it or not.
Kendrick Lamar surprised a lot of people by bringing jazz influences to the fore on his huge, Grammy-guzzling album, To Pimp a Butterfly. Washington’s fingerprints – and his tenor saxophone – are all over that record.
Just a couple of months after that album came out, Washington put out his own, a triple-disc, three-hour pure jazz epic, suitably titled The Epic. Hearing the rich, expressive sound of Washington’s sax laid over a bed of choirs, strings and bass is a sprawling, cinematic experience. Over the past year it’s been gathering a reputation as something special.
Broadsheet: How did The Epic become so epic?
Kamasi Washington: What happened is that I was recording the album first, for a whole month. I knew I had a surplus of music for the single disc I wanted to create. I had 17 tracks that felt like a whole statement. I was trying to figure out how to get them to fit. Do I chop them up, drop some? Then I had a dream that encompassed all 17 songs. I got into the story of the dream, and it gave me the confidence to accept the album for what it is.
BS: So the whole record tells a story? What’s the story?
KW: It’s a long story.
BS: Give me the cheat notes.
KW: Well, the first part is … I had a dream about the track Change of the Guard. There was a guy at the top of a mountain. He guarded this gate, and that’s all he did. At the bottom of the mountain there were people who, all they did was train to one day challenge this guard, and one day they’d become the guard themselves. This group of kids who live in this village, they trained, and when they were ready, they went up, and when they got there he was gone. The story goes all over the place from there.
BS: Am I reading too much into it to say the kids challenging the guard are you and your band?
KW: Not quite. It’s more like a generational thing. We’ve waited for our opportunity to take charge. It’s something that eluded us for a long time. It’s not just my friends, it’s our whole generation.
BS: You’ve been friends with a lot of the musicians you work with for your entire life.
KW: We’ve known each other since before music. We’ve gigged with each other for a long time [on each others’ projects], but my version of the band is the only one with everyone in it.
We grew up in a pretty rough area. But there’s a term called a “pass”. Gangsters gave us a pass – they wouldn’t bother us, get us involved, because we were making music. Our music was our escape.
BS: Because you were doing something positive?
KW: There’s an appreciation that musicians are doing something good, yeah.
BS: Was jazz big when you were growing up in LA?
KW: Actually, it was. South Central LA isn’t known for jazz, but the cultural centre of LA definitely is. But that’s not what you see on the news.
There weren’t a lot of kids into it, but it was definitely a thing. The separation between genres wasn’t there, either. All the jazz musicians and poets were right there next to where underground hip-hop was developing. There was a connection there. On top of that, most of the musicians from my neighbourhood started playing music in church. That’s where all the R’n’B musicians came from, too. Jazz, hip-hop, R’n’B, gospel … it was all interconnected. Then I started playing with Snoop when I was 19. He was very into a jazz approach. I was all about the instrument, the melody – I was all about what I was playing. But with Snoop, he made me think more about phrasing, and the way I play.
BS: Less about precision?
KW: No, very precise. Almost more precision. But it mattered where you placed something. Like decorating a house. It’s not about what couch you bought, it’s about where you put it. It changed the way I listen to music, and now I think, ‘Oh wow, this is cool not because of the note they played, but the way he played it’. That, I learnt from Snoop. It’s in jazz, but the emphasis is different.
BS: Jazz hasn’t really had much of a place in current pop for a long time. Is your record about harking back to when it was more prominent?
KW: Well, think about A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, Wu-Tang … there’s jazz all through that. But Kendrick put it at the forefront. That whole G-Funk sound is so intertwined with funk, and funk is so intertwined with jazz. So jazz and hip-hop have always been intertwined but the jazz side, people just didn’t talk about it.
To me jazz is a wide genre. There’s so much music that falls under that term. But the one thing that binds all these approaches is that it’s a music of expression. People want to share experiences with other people. That’s what jazz is about. It’s not about following other people, sounding like old records, it’s about that self-expression.
Kamasi Washington tour dates:
Rod Laver Arena,
March 21 (support act to Kendrick Lamar)
The Prince Bandroom,
March 24 & 26