Shortly before getting on the phone with the effusive L.A. saxophonist Kamasi Washington, I do a quick search of his name on Twitter to make sure I didn’t miss any icebreaker ideas or errant controversies. A lot of results pop up. Fans are excited. It’s the Friday before Washington and an orchestra take the Coachella stage for the second time in a week, playing songs at sunset — “world premieres,” he’ll tell me, proud — two months ahead of the release of Heaven and Earth. It’s his third studio album for the meritable British label Young Turks. But the tweets also reveal something interesting, although not entirely surprising: a lot of people who are excited for forthcoming Drake, Kanye West, and Rihanna releases are also tweeting about the new Kamasi.
“So much good music has been looked over because of preconceived notions of genre,” he says. “My reality growing up was, like, ‘Oh snap, Snoop’s coming out with a new album and [so is] Kenny Garrett? Which one am I gonna get?’ But now, especially as people can get to music easier, jazz [is moving] out of isolation.”
This down-to-earth approach to music fandom and production is part of what’s pushed Washington — who has sessioned for pop acts like Snoop Dogg and Lauryn Hill, as well as jazz masters like Herbie Hancock — from big band player to new school leader. Since his first studio record, The Epic, was released in 2015, Washington’s been credited with helping Kendrick Lamar translate his brand of dogmatic rap to something more sonically divine on that year’s To Pimp A Butterfly. “I like living on that edge, musically,” he says, with respect to his method on stage and in the studio. “I like a bit of insecurity and that feeling of not really knowing what’s going to happen.”
A lot of the conversation around this year’s iteration of Coachella billed it as a peak black cultural moment. Would you agree?
I walked around a lot last weekend, and there was a more diverse crowd. I’m not as into the idea of the divides of music [because] when I hear rock bands I hear links to funk and jazz. American music comes from the same tree, but sometimes we get to these places in history where we forget where things come from and they get compartmentalized. So when you see a jazz band at Coachella it’s like, “Whoa, there’s a jazz band at Coachella!” but when you look at Beyoncé’s set with all the horns and brass — in those arrangements I could hear that somebody listened to some jazz. I hear it and see it everywhere, but I do feel like we’re celebrating African-American culture in a way that’s unique to this time period.
It’s also interesting to hear how young artists from different parts of the black diaspora connect, and not just from America outward; other parts of the world are disrupting America’s cultural hegemony too.
You totally see it. The connection that different countries of the diaspora have with one another: Brazil, Cuba, the U.S., Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe. Despite the efforts of different regimes to cut people of African descent from the culture, the music was able to transcend that. Most African-American people don’t know the country of their origin, but have a subconscious connection to it through culture. In the ’60s, African-Americans were pushing for equality, a recognition of their culture, looking back to Africa and their ancestors. This generation is reaffirming that and going deeper. People are trying to consciously connect. And it’s not a niche thing. It’s something that Beyoncé — the biggest artist in the world — is pushing.
Can you elaborate on this subconscious/conscious concept?
It’s the difference between going after something you know that you need and what you think that you need. It’s a slight difference, but I think it’s significant. It makes that reach a little less fragile. My dad was very much a Pan-Africanist and instilled in me and my siblings a want for that knowledge. But I also remember that when people heard my name they were like, “Why do you have an African name?” Now, people wouldn’t ask you that — I have an African name because I’m African. The younger generation has its own challenges, but it feels like the power of ignorance is waning. I have nieces and little sisters and I’m amazed at how much they know.
The press release for your new double album Heaven and Earth says that Earth is meant to be played first...
That’s not necessarily the case. When I’m playing this album for people I often jump back and forth, because there’s an equivalent track on each side. This album is a journey between two simultaneous ways of looking at reality that affect each other: experience and imagination; a life your body lives and a life your mind lives. While recording, I realized I had two sides of my music as well. Songs that come from how I experience the world — a side that’s conscious, concerned, reads the newspaper every day and is very earthbound — and a side that can stare out the window.
“Fists of Fury” is a song inspired by my favorite Bruce Lee movie, and both reflect how I experience life, as not necessarily suffering but this never-ending struggle. I wrote “The Space Travellers Lullaby” on tour. The bus stopped in this remote place, and there were thousands of stars in the sky, and I was just blown away. [Laughs] I’m kind of a science-fiction guy and was thinking, “One day we’re going to travel to all these places and see the universe.” So there’s a side of myself that’s really infatuated with all the amazing things that I will do and the world can do — the idea of our endless potential. And the other side sees the struggle and is always problem-solving and poking holes, because I think of myself as being able to plug those holes. I imagine the world as a place of never-ending struggle because I have endless potential.
I relate to that: anxious to the point of cynicism about the world because I inherently think we can change.
Well, what is what? We don’t live in the whole world so we have a whole lot of control — ultimate control — over our little pocket. The people who seem to have a lot of power don’t actually have a lot of power; someone like Trump only has the power people give him and at any point we can take that back.
So this moment of black people feeling ‘seen’ by pop culture is part of this power shift…
This current resurgence of African-American culture is not because of Beyoncé, or Marvel for making Black Panther — it’s the people. Stuff happens when all of us decide to do something. That’s what this album was about for me: understanding that the world can be what we want it to be in an instant, if we stop waiting for someone else to make it. I don’t know how to get the masses to do that, [laughs] but I know I can make my community a cool place and make the relationships around me what I want them to be.
“I imagine the world as a place of never-ending struggle because I have endless potential.”
Some of the lyrics from “Fists of Fury” — “Our time as victims is over / We will no longer ask for justice / Instead we will take our retribution” — have been cited in early write-ups as emblematic of some anger that, perhaps, people didn’t previously perceive in your music. Is that how you experience the song?
When I think of anger I think of a lack of self-control. Anger leads to mistakes. “Fists of Fury” is about being assertive and taking the power that you have. African-American people are asking for justice from a country that has never given it to us, and at a certain point you realize there’s no intention to give you that justice, and no desire for you to have it from those people you are asking for it from — so why ask? If you’re asking someone for justice that means you feel like justice is outside of your control, and I don’t feel like it is.
The U.S. is a uniquely diverse and isolated place. If you live in the middle of the U.S., you’re very far away from any kind of foreign country. In most places in the world the idea of different countries and governments are more in your face, so when I travel and talk to people they seem sympathetic to those on the wrong side of justice here, but people are suffering there as well. Our problems are all of our problems and have been for hundreds of years.
I read that you recorded this album in two and a half weeks. What comes first for you: the concept, or the music?
It wasn’t a deadline. I’m always writing songs, so I picked a bunch with no idea what the album was going to be. It was May 2016, the the middle of tour in the busiest year of my life. We did 200 shows for The Epic. I had to convince everyone to jump in the studio! This topic we’re talking about now was what we were talking about on tour: “Why are all these things happening? Why? Why? Why?” When I started recording I saw connections in the songs that I didn’t see before. It’s who I am and it was there, and I had to decipher it. Music has its own agenda, and I try to serve the music more than have it serve me. I’m a bit superstitious in that way.
Are you superstitious outside of music?
I’m not sure. I try to go with the flow of what’s happening, especially musically. [Laughs] But I have lucky dollar bills that I keep in my wallet, so I guess I am superstitious!
How do you “go with the flow” when working with an ensemble of individuals?
I always record the core band first, and we spend an hour or two talking about a song before recording. For this album I didn’t write the harmonies, like, “E minor, A major” — they’re more melodies that are harmonized so the chords are kind of ambiguous. So I go to each person, show them the song, play it, and explain what I think it is. Because I grew up with these guys, it turns into a two hour-long conversation/argument. Somewhere along there we’ll come to a consensus on what it’s going to be and what each person is going to do. Inevitably, in the process of playing, people will find other gems within the music. We’ll do one or two takes. After that I’ll listen to it and write more music to go around it. I create the skeleton, the band comes and creates the body, and then I write the skin for it.
I like that you used the word “consensus.” It gives a nice sense of how you work.
Music is a communal activity at its best so I try to not get in the way. Each of the musicians I have with me I respect as being a genius. I would never try to block that. When I give people space the music gets to be its full potential.
In another interview you described the rap music you grew up on as “music to be bumped in a Cadillac.” Where do you imagine people listening to your music?
In a Cadillac! [Laughs] I can imagine the music in a lot of places but, yeah, definitely still being played loudly in a Cadillac.