While the rain poured outside, Kamasi Washington and his ensemble poured out 90 minutes of red hot jazz in the Mojo Tent.
By Brian Wise
There’s a sporting expression that goes, ‘Let’s keep a lid on it.’ You will hear it used a lot in Australia when a team performs well and they are suddenly being touted as finals contenders, or an individual gets past the first round of a tennis or golf tournament.
Now, in music, I’m trying to keep a lid on expectations of Kamasi Washington but it might be too late. He has already been called ‘the biggest thing to hit jazz for years, decades even.’
Let’s face it, anyone who can get a young audience to buy the aptly named The Epic, a triple CD/6 LP jazz set clocking in at 172 minutes and have online magazines like Pitchfork declare him the next big thing has to have a lot going.
Jazz is only one strength in the armoury of the 34-year-old Californian saxophonist, composer, and bandleader who played and arranged on the Kendrick Lamar’s recent million-selling album, multi-Grammy Award-winning, To Pimp A Butterfly and one of his first gigs was playing in Snoop Dogg’s band. Also, he’s toured with Raphael Saadiq and Lauryn Hill.
By any standards The Epic is extraordinary with its huge cast, including a 32-piece orchestra and a 20-voice choir alongside his own 10-piece band the Next Step, with music that references John Coltrane and Alice Coltrane and that even pays tribute to Malcolm X. (The album is released on the Brainfeeder label which is owned by producer Flying Lotus, Alice Coltrane’s great-nephew).
“I’ve been playing music since I was a baby,” says Washington when I ask him how he got started playing a musical instrument. “I don’t even remember starting to play music. I started playing drums when I was somewhere around three years old.
“My dad is a saxophone player, so you can’t really play woodwind instruments until you get your big teeth, or at least your front two big teeth. I started off on drums and I started playing piano. Then my dad – he grew up in the Seventies where if you’re going to be a woodwind player you have to play saxophone, flute, and clarinet. So he started me on clarinet first, but I always wanted to play the saxophone. All my favourite musicians are saxophone players, and that was just kind of like what I wanted to play. He played saxophone. My heart had already kind of chosen the instrument that I was going to play.”
Washington developed fast and, in 1999, when he was only seventeen he had won the John Coltrane Music Competition. Needless, to say Coltrane is a major influence.
“It was amazing because I got to meet Alice Coltrane,” he recalls, “and I met Ravi Coltrane, and that was actually where I met Flying Lotus. He was there, but he was like thirteen years old!”
“I was as ethnomusicology and composition major, with a jazz emphasis,” he replies when I ask him about his college years at UCLA. “I had a pretty complicated major but I had people like Kenny Burrell and Gerald Wilson, a great trumpeter and composer – he really took me under his wing, and he showed me a lot about writing and about just being a musician and being a good person. He actually let me join his band; he took me to New York. I recorded with him and he used to tell me stories. He wrote for Count Basie, he wrote for Duke Ellington, he wrote for Billie Holiday, was good friends of John Coltrane. He used to babysit Eric Dolphy’s kids.”
So Washington had a great start in music but what was his big break, the thing that got him into playing full-time?
“You know, it was multiple breaks,” he responds. “It was different styles of music. When I started playing with Snoop is when I really kind of got the door into hip-hop, on a professional level, the door to hip-hop opened to me. Playing with Gerald Wilson is how I met George Duke and others. In my life I’ve had like several of them.
“I think that when I reconnected with Flying Lotus and he asked if I wanted to make a record for Brainfeeder – that was really the door that opened for me that hadn’t been open.”
Of course, he also played with Kendrick and I wonder if there’s any chance of him getting up and playing with him at Blues Fest?
“We haven’t really talked about it,” says Washington. “It would be cool if we did, but we haven’t talked about it. I guess I should reach out and see what he could have planned, or where he’s thinking about going.”