The Power of the People: Kamasi Washington on artistic freedom and intellectual expansion

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Kamasi Washington
Kamasi Washington | photo courtesy of the artist

If you listen to current jazz and its proponents, you’d think the landscape would be wrought with dark cynicism, mired in the sometimes tenuous relationship that jazz, in an attempt to stay in the millennial zeitgeist, has had to build with scenes like noise or experimental music. Scenes where a bleaker outlook is fostered at the expense of spiritual liberation.

Enter Kamasi Washington, a beacon in the modern iteration of jazz and avant garde music. He exists as a portal to another time where African dashikis and proud Nubian brothers holding spears atop wicker chairs, or black astral travelers conjuring up sounds rocking “spiritual tuning fork as headdress,” were the norm. With his band locked in with the force of a hadron collider and bursting with kaleidoscopic vision, the native Los Angeleno manages to bring together genres seamlessly with two highly acclaimed albums– 2015’s The Epic and this fall’s Harmony of Difference. While he has enough room in his heart for both Art Blakey and Grover Washington, both Wayne Shorter and George Benson, the key to this grand synthesis of sound, where orchestral moments like Epic‘s opening track “Change of the Guard” lift through the atmosphere only to descend gracefully, tapering out with an effortless cool that evokes a hungry Miles Davis, is simple: it’s in the power of the people.

In the soft-spoken timbre that belies his bearish stature and that hints at the visionary that he is, Kamasi posits that, “if you see people making music from their real experiences and who they are as people, you will see music take a more active role in society. We all live on this planet and we deal with the problems inherent in this world. If our music is a reflection of who we are, then the music will reflect our own struggles as well.”

In discussing the continued genre-hammering in music, he expands: “The lines that divide music are starting to become less focused. The titles and the names and definitions we put on music should not have power over the music, it should be the reverse. The name is derived from the music, the music isn’t derived from the name. I don’t make music based off what name you give it. In general, there’s too much emphasis placed on genre. It doesn’t matter what definition you place on the word, the music is the music and the word is the word. That understanding and that distinction sometimes gets lost.”

Washington was famously raised in a jazz household and then brought up listening to the nurturing sounds of musically advanced rap artists like Freestyle Fellowship and beat-makers and DJ’s like Flying Lotus rock the legendary L.A. Hip Hop gatherings The Good Life and Project Blowed. “[Los Angeles] was very much a cultural hub and we were all open to each other and we learned from each other. Part of it was that the L.A. music scene was so self-contained. A lot of the times, outside of Death Row-esque hip-hop, much of L.A. music was overlooked. So we looked inward.” As well, Washington attributes much of his refined, empowered sound as being informed and propelled by his elders. “People like Billy Higgins and Kamau Dawud making a space for younger folks and encouraging us to be on one accord. There was so much encouragement coming from above and the elders showing us a lot of love really helped form our scene into what it is.”

Eventually, the saxophonist would hone his talents playing for other musicians, borrowing technique and inspiration from his own father and his fellow genius friends like the multi-genre bassist and producer Thundercat. It was on Kendrick Lamar’s critically lauded rap album To Pimp A Butterfly where Washington’s impact really smashed through. “That record is a good example of music of today that has the sophistication and the depth that’s equal or even beyond anything that’s come in the past. I think a jazz fan would appreciate all the different types of beauty contained with that album: harmonically, rhythmically, lyrically, structurally. There’s a lot of complexity on that album.”

When asked about his time on that record and how the brilliance of it was maintained, “I think Kendrick wanted to make a record that really just celebrated black music. He’s a brilliant enough artist that he was able to identify other great artists to collaborate with and he allowed them to infuse their full energy into the record. Which is very much in the spirit of jazz, that freedom of expression that everyone that’s playing has. On Butterfly there is a feeling of multiple spirits within it; Kendrick was open enough to let us be a part of it.”

A large part of Butterfly, as well vast parts of the The Epic and the shorter (by the terms of Kamasi’s expansive vision), Whitney commissioned Harmony of Difference, was the timeless politically charged ideas intertwined with the music. It’s a daring idea, this marriage of politics and expansion in music, especially in a climate that seems to value the dumbed-down, the popcorn ready, and the formulaic. But Washington thinks we’re ready for it. “I think listeners are just into good music. I think the great music is timeless, so if you’re making good music now they’ll be into it. As musicians today, all we can do is make the music that really represents who we are. Once you do that, they’ll listen.”

Yet, for a lot of modern jazz music, there exists a fight to remain relevant. How does one do that in the time of Lil’ Uzi Vert and still retain jazz’s seminal black roots? “I think that just exposing them to jazz will bring [young black kids] to the music. Bringing music back into the schools, that helps. Having a baseline connection with instruments, it does enrich people and gives them a taste for music that has a bit more enrichment to it. In the end people will listen to the music they like, but just by exposing young kids, giving them at least a foundational understanding of music, will make their musical tastes a bit more developed.” To Washington, “music is often controlled by people other than the musicians that make it. In the end, it’s not about the color of your skin, but more about your intentions.”

The utopian hope is alive in Washington’s live presentation. Stages are often inundated with a colorful, widely representative array performers. While the listener might have difficulty envisioning the layered nuances and choral flourishes of songs like “The Rhythm Changes,” for instance, there’s an insistence on freedom in the live artistic space. When asked, “When you play the The Epic live, what sort of liberties do you take with it? And since that record, or even Harmony, what influences have ventured into the live interpretation?”, Kamasi’s response is true: “We take every liberty possible. Yeah, the music changes in almost every way you can imagine, every time, every night. [A live experience] is it’s own thing, I don’t try to recreate the record. I try to create something that is special and unique to that space and time that we’re in. We’ll play the songs on the records, but we always change them. We try to create a vibe and energy that we’re all a part of.”

Ahead of his performance November 25th at Union Transfer, Washington expressed reverent excitement at touching down here in Philadelphia. “Every city has a different energy, and Philly definitely has something that’s special. So much amazing music from jazz to hip hop, funk, has come from Philly.” The show will be supported by the Sun Ra Arkestra, a band whose eccentric leader, Sun Ra, was influential in Washington’s artistic growth, with the young musician citing Sun Ra’s music and philosophies. It is quite observable that both The Epic and Harmony retains that kind of cosmic exploration and soulful earthiness simultaneously. If there’s a fear that audiences outside of jazz circles aren’t ready for this kind of cosmology, however, Kamasi Washington isn’t worried. “People, society, are looking for a level of intellectual expansion. They’re looking for something more, and there’s a freedom and expansion in jazz that is pretty unique. It does feel like people are ready for something new.”

Kamasi Washington plays a sold-out show at Union Transfer on Saturday, November 25th.

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