„I am trying to give the flower the bloom.“
The triple-album debut is a rare beast. Even Prince had to wait until late-mid-career before assailing his label with that scale of beast. Yet here in a field of one is Los Angeles born Kamasi Washington and his righteously-titled “The Epic” (on Flying Lotus label imprint Brainfeeder). One of the US’ finest jazzers, his collaborations with Flying Lotus (for “You’re Dead”) and Kendrik Lamar (for “To Pimp A Butterfly”) had already demonstrated his ability to crossover into electronic music and hiphop. With his “The Epic” debut Washington takes a proud stroll onto the grounds prepared by jazz gods like Sun Ra, John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders.
We chatted to Kamasi before his performance in Cologne at Club Bahnhof Ehrenfeld. This was to be an extraordinary musical experience: one rarely sees eight so different characters bringing their own narratives to a stage and yet so deftly melding their individual talents into a collective expression. Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr. on the drums, Brandon Coleman on the keyboards, Miles Mosley on the upright bass, Patrice Quinn on the vocals, Ryan Porter on the trombone – and of course Kamasi Washington himself on tenor saxophone and his father Rickey Washington on flute and sax. Fantasy jazz lineups do not get any better than this. Each musician super-talented on his own field yet still able to step back and respect the place and time of the others in this shared sonic mission. This two hour concert showcased so beautifully what some people try to negate these days: above all it’s music that’s a door to a better world.
Kamasi, your buddy Thundercat aka Stephen Bruner released this morning the tribute song „Paris“ along with Mono/Poly in reaction to the terrible attacks which happened in Paris four days ago.
I heard that. He was right at the club when it happened, just a few blocks away.
I like the idea of him to react with a song and by that show the spirtual ability of music to unite people.
You were also supposed to play in Paris last Sunday, two days after the attack as part of the Red Bull Music Academy. Was it hard for you to cancel the show?
We tried to work it out, but it felt insensitive to the people. It was a hard decision to make. I just wanted what is the best for the people there. I was ready to come if they want me to do so – if it seems like the energy is there and they need good times to get over that. But that club we were supposed to play was connected to Bataclan, the one the attack happened – so it did not feel right at this time.
It’s a tightrope between showing your respect by stepping back or carrying on doing what you planned right?
Yeah, it is hard to find the balance. In this case, it felt too soon.
Kamasi, talking about things like that, one has to think about the character of a band as a family that travels together around the world. Does it feel for you like this?
Absolutely. We were friends before music. I met Brandon Coleman 10 years before he started playing piano. All of us have been friends since we were little kids, that joins us. But there is something more than this: the music we share.
How do you define your role within this set up right now. Are you the bandleader?
Sometimes I am the bandleader, sometimes Brandon is, sometimes Miles Mosley. We all play and the leader changes in a continuous process. It is very natural for us. For all of us the music is the thing which matters. I don’t tell them what to do, the music leads you.
What you just describe is a beautiful definition of a social group, a constant twist of leading and following.
Yeah. It is about sharing. People have this irrational fear of losing something – that means in the end someone always takes everything. You do not need everything, there is more than enough for everyone. I like to play Brandon’s music, I like playing Miles’s and of all the others. When it is their time to play I am happy, it does not take away anything from me. I do not have the irrational thought: „Oh, I have to be in the front or I lose something.“ I go front, I go to the side, I go back. All different experiences.
How would you describe the similarities and the differences between the band’s different individual approaches? Is there a certain thread that unites everyone?
Do you reflect a lot on what your music means, how you make it… And if so, what is your perspective on it? Do you come from sound colour, from vibe, from rhythm…?
Playing music is like a conversation, like a discussion. I don’t have extra sensory experiences of music, I do not see colours, I do not taste anything. It is more like that I can tell what kind of day Ryan Porter has by how he is playing. When he is playing he is talking to me what is happening in his life. And then maybe Ronald Bruner Jr. injects something of his trouble on the drums and so on.
So it is a constant process of improvisation?
How does this musical process you just described work in the studio?
It’s the same thing in the studio: we just play. The little difference to the live situation is that when you write a song, there is a vision I have for it. Live I do not get hung up on that, we just live the moment. When recording, I try to realize the vision of the song, the energy, the direction. So what we try there is to capture that feeling which came to me while writing the song – but also there, sometimes someone plays something which is so compelling that it takes the music to a diffferent place. Playing live it is free fall, we might play a ballad really fast, or play a fast song as a ballad. We might make a vocal song instrumental or come up with vocals for an instrumental one. It is wide open. Thats how it is and thats the beautiful thing about music: it is not predictable.
Is working within a collective a more challenging context for your work than if you would act alone?
Having a collective makes you more confident – wherever I go they will be able to go with me. If I play with other musicans and play a song and hear a let’s say a Calypso motif within it, I can’t go there if I don’t know that they also hear that Calypso element… but knowing them and knowing they hear it makes things possible. Having a confident history I know I can go everywhere I wanna go. We do not have to decide beforehand.
Your album’s been a massive hit with audience and critics. It was also interesting as it got so many people suddenly talking about jazz and “what jazz means”…
When you make music, you never know how people will react to it and talk about it. I live in Los Angeles, a really big city, you could drive for two hours, no traffic, and you could still be in LA. So there are lot of different kind of people, every type of people you could almost think of, different cultures. This group that I work with, the music we do, it is jazz. But the word jazz is just a word, you could call it… whatever you want. We’ve taken our music to lots of different places and we never get a negative response. Even in places where no one is listening to jazz. The thing with LA is, all musicians in LA and all of their styles, we all know each other. I know a lot of the rock musicians, of the hiphop DJs, a lot of gospel and funk musicians. That means we play clubs that normally never have jazz acts playing, with a stage so small we are cramped together because they normally only have DJs. In those kind of environments in the beginning everyone in the audience looks at us and thinks: „What is this? I came here to hear a DJ and now there is this band with an upright bass, saxophones, trumpets..?“ And then we play our music and by the end of the set they say: „I love this! What is this?“
I always knew that my music has the potential to catch people that didn’t look at themselves as fans of jazz. But people who say they don’t like jazz usually haven’t listened to it anyway – that’s my experience.
Often people in Europe misread jazz as intellectual music. Which is such a weird conclusion. Of course there can be quite an intellectual approach to jazz music as much as there is in post-rock or minimal techno… but jazz is on the other side as texture, warm, as embracing as let’s say soul music or other genres which aren’t perceived as “intellectual”…
Any music could be intellectual in its own way. In the US jazz has the character of “old music”, that it is about things that happened 50 years ago, not about what is happening now, not a current thing. And that is not true. Jazz is not ‘older’ than rock’n’roll. It is just a perception. I realise, when we play it, people love it as there is so much personality in the music. We are having this conversation people could connect to. When I put the album out, I didnt know if people would listen to it. Maybe they look at it and see it is as what it is: a jazz record with a bunch of instruments on it and say: „I am not gonna listen to it!“ But I was sure, if they listened to it, they were gonna like it.
You can feel this belief in the potential of your music to draw people in, in fact it seems to be written there in the title “The Epic” as well as in the very scale of the work – being a debut triple album.
Do you see the music you do as a continuation of jazz as conceived by people like Sun Ra, John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders, or do you feel this is totally your own path?
Everything people do is a continuation what people before them did. Even when you are trying to walk away, that means you are walking away from something. It is always a continuation. Before I had a band something had to be there to lead to a band. For us, I feel like not we are not trying to do anything, neither display what happened before nor get away from it. Most of us are second generation musicians so we grew up with and around music. It is a part of us. We embedded it in our personality, so we have our own style, our own music we are playing. We try to play as us – and this is including the people we were listening to. So it is both: I am not trying to sound like John Coltrane. But I am not trying not to sound like John Coltrane. I am trying to sound like me. Who I am? I have listened to Busta Rhymes, Dr. Dre, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, all kinds of music made me who I am. It is about expressing what is in me and getting that out. The music is just an expression, a way of communication. I am not trying to do anything. I am trying to give the flower the bloom.
How does feel for you to work with people like Snoop Dogg or Kendrick Lamar?
Is it true that you said that people have told you ‘not to play too musical’? Who would do this?!
Lots of people. I kinda understand what they try to say.
Well, I guess this comes from the same perspective as when people say: „jazz is intellectual“. There is a certain angst or fear within them.
Yeah. We are intellectual, emotional human beings. The notion that people ain’t like something cause it is not easy… lots of great music is difficult and not difficult at the same time. A rainbow has all those colors – it is difficult to describe but not hard to look at it. Any music is difficult to play, it may sound like that but…. It is is not easy to play like James Brown: dum dum dum, all over again. But still really hard to play it like he does. Only a very few people could play it like that. Jazz is difficult in a different way, but at the same time it is not difficult – you could listen to it. As much as I know about music, when I listen to John Coltrane I don’t know what he is doing. I am just listening to it and enjoying for what it is and not analyzing which harmonies he plays or how it is related to ‘x’… I am simply enjoying it and letting it disappear up into the air.
Some things can´t disappear that easy in the air. Talking about your music also means talking politics:
Kamasi, hearing you describe your everyday experiences as an African-American person in the US, I have of course to think about the processes we are experience right now over here in Europe. Reinforced by the asylum debate and also by those tragic attacks in Paris we see a lof of regressive tendencies towards social groups separating…
It has always been there. In the 30s and the 40s this mentality was on the forefront, living in the light. Everyone knew what they thought. They didn’t hide it, were not ashamed to feel that way. They talked and acted openly that way. In the 50s, 60s and 70s there was a push back from the rest of society, from those who do not think like that, who do not have this kind of feelings. So those people pushed the others back and were trying to get rid of them. But it was still happening in the shadows. Now there is somebody with a camera in the shadows and puts the light on it and we have to deal with it all over again. It is the responsibility of us people, the ones who don’t believe like that to get up and push them back. It is a shame that people don’t realise that violence and hatred are not the answer. If you refer to that you lose in one way or the other: either you lose your body or you lose your soul, depends on which side of the gun you are.
Kamasi, I would love to keep on talking to you, but I think your soundcheck needs you. It was a great pleasure.
Man, same here.