Kamasi Washington: the return of the West Coast warrior

Following his critically acclaimed triple-album, 2015’s The Epic, LA saxophonist has circumnavigated the globe with a seemingly endless series of concerts that have cemented his reputation as the go-to spiritual jazz beacon for a younger generation of devotees. Now he’s back with a fresh double-album, Heaven And Earth, a record that further mines the flamboyant choral and string flourishes of its predecessor. Kevin Le Gendre discovers how the West Coast warrior has managed to keep his feet on the ground while still looking to the stars

Populism is a buzzword in resurgence. Generally speaking, in politics, the term refers to a cynical manipulation of nostalgia for the way things were, in an idealised world, as well as fear of what, or who might be in a position of power in an imagined one. ‘Take back control of Britain’, or ‘make America great again’. The rhetoric is short-sighted, the consequences far reaching.

Kamasi Washington is forthcoming on the subject. The tenor saxophonist and composer is an established international artist who spends months at a time away from his birthplace of Los Angeles, gigging across the Americas, Europe and the Far East. He defines himself as a citizen of the world, rather than one of ‘nowhere’.

“I feel like I have a perspective globally,” he says. “Musically, I kind of always lived that life, but in the microcosm of Los Angeles; now I’ve expanded out to the actual world, so it’s me going from Little Tokyo and Chinatown [in LA] to the actual Tokyo and Beijing. There’s virtually a ‘little’ version of every culture you can think of [in LA], and then there’s the cross-pollination of that; you find everything there.”

Washington pinpoints paradoxes for those who peddle a divisive ‘them and us’ agenda. There is a map in the human mind, as well as the blueprint of hard borders. “You come to Europe and there’s a bunch of different countries that are in proximity to each other. We’re not in proximity to others. There’s like Canada and Mexico,” he points out. “So if you think of world culture, we’re pretty far away from it. But most of the biggest, most populated areas of the United States are the most diverse places I’ve ever been. American culture is multicultural, there is no American culture as a singularity, it’s a mixture. When Trump…, or he who shall remain nameless, [insults other cultures], well, it’s embarrassing that we elected someone like him as a leader.”

Though physically imposing, Washington is softly spoken, and retains a degree of calm as he makes that last point emphatically. His despair at the current incumbent in the White House, and American politics in general, is offset by a belief that, “there are more people that want this world to be a beautiful paradise than those who don’t.”

In fact, his 2017 release, the six-track EP, Harmony Of Difference, was an explicit statement on the co-existence rather than conflict between, ‘every kind of people’. Musically speaking, it was largely in the vein of Washington’s 2015 debut The Epic, an audacious triple-album that wore its title well, and captured the imagination to become the story in jazz that year. Such was its snowball effect that Washington went from relative obscurity in January to headlining a Barbican show at the London Jazz Festival in November, even though the more discerning fans of Thundercat, Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamarr would have known his name. Washington’s contribution to their techno-soldered fusion, abstract electronica and politically charged, baroque hip hop, respectively, reflected a versatility that was consolidated by the ambition of his own recording. Featuring a double rhythm-section, strings and choir, The Epic was a dense work that had strong echoes of an expansive post-modal sound often dubbed ‘spiritual jazz’, patented by John and Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders et al in the 1970s. But there was at times a hard edge in the arrangements that betrayed his love of both funk and the history of film scores, with their urbane classical and jazz resonances.

If Washington looked big on-stage, then up close and personal he also cuts a striking figure. Clad in a full-length burgundy dashiki with gold trim, he has the aura of a village elder, if not Pharoah circa Karma, and his composure and warm demeanour confer a sage-like quality that belie his 37 years. We are in the airy west London office of Young Turks, the UK label that is his new home following his departure from Ninja Tune. Washington is more than happy to acknowledge that British audiences, and the media which serves them, have had a longstanding patronage of American artists, of which latterly Gregory Porter has been a notable beneficiary. “Yeah, there’s definitely a sense that our music is more widely appreciated here,” he concurs. “You know the US has so much art and so much expression and talent, there is so much happening there, but ironically there’s not always the appreciation for it.

“LA has never been deemed the Mecca or the second Mecca of jazz. New York is the place. I always found the scene… with the isolation there was a purity among the best musicians in LA that I really appreciated. I’d go to a jam session and people would say, ‘you sound great, where are you from?’ LA? And I was like, why would you say that? Some of the greatest musicians I’ve ever heard are living there, but people just don’t know about them. Some of the great musicians from LA, a lot of them went to New York and came back because they didn’t like it; they liked the isolation, the freedom here, and that pressure to conform to a movement wasn’t for them. So they went back home; there’s a lot of individualism in LA.”

Regardless of who didn’t make it out of the ‘city of Angels’, those who put something into it are big in Washington’s world. Looming large are such as pianist-social activist Horace Tapscott, founder of the Pan-Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, Roberto Miranda and Sonship Theus, both of whom visited Washington’s school to do workshops that were life-changing, as well as more recognised figures, such as Billy Higgins. They were among the revered elders from the 1960s who paved the way in the 1990s for the emergence of the hub of young players, the West Coast Get Down, which featured Washington as well as Miles Mosley, Cameron Graves and Brandon Coleman.

These musicians also appear on Washington’s new album, Heaven And Earth, which is a development of the template unveiled on The Epic. Again the sound is one of soaring orchestrations and choral richness that betrays his love of multi-layered composing as well as impassioned improvising. With that in mind, he is happy to discuss the ongoing influence of a legend, arranger-conductor Gerald Wilson, a seminal figure in west coast jazz, with whom the saxophonist spent a great deal of time in his formative years, often visiting his home for invaluable masterclasses.

“He wanted compositions performed as they were written, but he also always wrote into his compositions space and freedom to create,” Washington recalls with a smile. He raises a hand for emphasis, his fingers adorned by large, decoratively baroque rings that glint as afternoon light starts to bathe the room. “So, for me, it was a challenge to try to figure out how to do that as well, because the band I grew up playing with was very free. We weren’t good at being confined, but I had a love for the freedom that you got from colours of large ensembles. That’s how I got the idea of recording a smaller group, letting it be free and wild and go all over the place, then writing music around that to get the best of both worlds. Gerald was really the one that turned me on to that.

“I’ll write a tune with parts for the rhythm section and record and give the musicians what I think the music is. Especially on this new record, I didn’t write songs with traditional chord changes in mind,” he continues. “It’s just colours, the different possibilities of the harmony and melody rather than… an E-major flat ninth. There’s a period where we’re going over the music and I’m explaining. Then, at a certain point, the light goes on and they get it and we record the song and it goes where it goes. I don’t give too many directions on how many bars of this or how many times we do that. If it flows, it flows into something, and once that something is down then I’ll listen and write an orchestration to go around it. When it’s done well it feels like they happen simultaneously, but it’s really a case of I can’t put the cart before the horse.

“On Heaven And Earth there’s more strings, there’s like a whole orchestra…. they’re just colours really. They’re just colours where you can add to things. There are already so many timbres that are happening in the band, with the horns, keyboard, percussion, so for me somehow that orchestra sound is just able to mix in with all of that without clashing. I don’t know how to describe it… it’s like pouring water over stone. The water will form around it; I suppose that’s really kind of how I look at it.”

Although Washington’s breakdown of his working method has a step-by-step logic at its root there is, nonetheless, a considerable grey area in which he and his accompanists operate at various junctures of a song’s development because Washington is not keen on writing in a set key signature. His desire to weave together layer upon layer of sounds – from rhythm section to horns to voices and strings – is such that he does not always map out a framework of chords prior to entering the studio. As Washington previously explained, the ulterior motive is to accommodate a degree of freedom within compositional narrative. He likes to keep things open with regard to what might be a harmony that is perceived as proper or improper, ‘in’ or ‘out’.

All of which leads to discussion and negotiation when it comes to the finer details of a particular arrangement. Washington professes as much love for modal music as he does changes-based workouts and the central question he has to answer is how three, rather than one set, of ears can hear notes and tones in a way that actually satisfies all. “You’re telling a story and within that musically sometimes it’s primary, visceral. I’m not thinking of a key, but is it consonant or dissonant?” he argues, his eyes focused as he further sketches out his modus operandi. “What kind of consonance do I want? There are some pretty big debates between myself, Cameron [Graves] and Brandon [Coleman] as to what a particular chord is in some of these songs. Brandon likes to identify a key and chord, Cameron is really attached to the colour and I’m kind of somewhere in the middle. Together, though, we usually decipher the song.”

Committed as he is to the improvising tradition – Washington’s solos on Heaven And Earth are as bracing as anything he has thus far recorded – he has drawn much from the world of classical music, which is something of a building block, not just for scoring music, but in creating texture and dynamics. On The Epic he covered Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’, but the piece he cites as an essential ear opener is Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ for its “sense of breathing” as it builds, broadens and boils to climax.

The rich sound palette and the combined weightiness of the woodwinds, brass, timpani, celesta, harp and strings makes that an entirely appropriate reference for somebody like Washington, whose own music has a similar grandeur. But the other salient fact is that Ravel’s chef d’oeuvre was commissioned by the Russian actress and dancer Ida Rubenstein in 1928 and that it is a ballet as well as a composition.

Physical movement synergises potently with sound. Even a cursory glance at Washington’s aesthetic, from his style of dress to the artwork of his records, suggests he has a keen eye for forms of expression beyond the world of music, thus fitting into a lineage of polyglot musicians whose interests are not limited to all things sonic. Quite by chance we met a few days after our conversation at an exhibition by African-American artist Lorna Simpson at the Hauser & Wirth gallery in central London. The work was an intriguing creation that featured canvases depicting glaciers in saturated ink and palls of smoke, as well as collages and reconfigurations of pioneering black lifestyle magazines Ebony and Jet, and their super slick adverts, dislocated from their more habitual setting of the front room or the barber shop.

Simpson’s exhibition was astutely called ‘Unanswerable’, and in many ways the title pinpointed a central conundrum with regard to the enduring perception of individuals, communities and cultures deemed minority. What possible response can there be to the enormously complex history, with its endless value judgments, of people of colour at this point in time? Simpson sees the artefacts in her work as, “having a resonance in terms of how we are living now under the Trump regime as quite frightening.” More tellingly, Simpson also made clear in a recent interview that the thing she fears in the current climate is ‘apathy’, and that chimes with Washington’s whole outlook on life, from both a political and musical point of view. On Heaven And Earth, the song that loosely translates that is ‘Connections’, which was directly inspired by Nate Parker’s 2016 movie The Birth Of A Nation, a gripping account of the life of Nat Turner, a slave who led a bloody revolt against his masters in Virginia in 1831.

“Yeah, it really tackled the idea of complacency, because Nat Turner said he had a relationship with his slave master where he didn’t have it ‘bad’, not like Frederick Douglass did,” Washington states very calmly. “He didn’t really have that, but he still understood that the whole scenario he was in was wrong. And that, if that’s the case, things need to change. It’s about the connection he had between his mother and future wife. The funkier part of the song felt like the exploratory connection that two people have that are not family. The film was really powerful because it spoke about taking matters into your hands and not looking for someone else to do anything for you.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: http://www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe

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