Tenor Saxophonist Kamasi Washington: Giant Steps

Tinseltown. La-La Land. Smell-A. First, of course, there's the climate. No way to hate sunshine and ocean breezes. And if you were somehow able to erase all the people in Southern California, the land itself—rising from the blue Pacific to high desert to timbered, sometimes even snowy mountaintops—is gorgeous. Then, of course, there's the unusually attractive human flora and fauna roaming SoCal. How did Brian Wilson put it . . . ? "Dolls by a palm tree in the sand."

Although the residents of America's two great metropolises are supposed to detest each other's hometown, or at least that was the moral of Annie Hall (that, and needing the eggs), many New Yorkers savor Los Angeles for what it is, and vice versa. One musical oddity about L.A., however, is that it's never been a jazz town. Or so goes the most commonly told tale. One that ignores the Pacific Jazz and Dial labels not to mention Bird in Camarillo. But in general while there have been hair-metal bands in Hollywood, the 1960s rock flowering up on Sunset, and a particularly great Americana/roots bloom in the '80s (Blasters, X, Los Lobos), musicians and jazz fans alike have always complained that L.A. doesn't have the musicians or the venues for jazz.

"Lemme say that Los Angeles is so spread out, but there are little pockets," says Kamasi Washington, sitting on the edge of the bed in his room at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, in Manhattan's Tribeca neighborhood. The tenor saxophonist's debut album, The Epic, blends fusion and groove jazz with more traditional head-solo-head arrangements, and such sweet touches as a killer arrangement of the jazz standard "Cherokee." With an ensemble that varies between seven and eleven players, the 17 mostly instrumental jazz tracks on The Epic do feature wordless choral parts, string sections, and flashes of lyrics from vocalist Patrice Quinn. Loaded with ambition, what's truly new here is the surging energy, generous spirit, and outright joy that Washington and his cohorts bring to the music. Seen live, the band spends much of its time onstage smiling at each other and the audience.

Only hours before Washington's first-ever gig as a headliner in NYC, this 34-year-old mountain of a man is charming, funny, and remarkably untainted by the music business's sharper corners, or the pressures of playing his debut NYC gig in front of Gotham's notoriously snooty jazz fans and critics. Part of his ease comes from having played here many times as a sideman—and the fact that, in his mind, L.A. is a jazz town.

"When I first came to New York, I was 17, 18 years old, and there were more musicians than we had in L.A.—a lot more. But I never heard anyone in NYC who could play better than our heroes at home. Isaac Smith. I never heard a trombone player anywhere on earth that could play like Isaac Smith. Or Zane Musa. All this stuff that Chris Potter is doing now? When I was 14, 15 years old, there was this guy—my age—doing all that altissimo stuff, playing superfast, and it was, like, man. I never went anywhere or heard anyone who had more chops than Zane Musa."

Washington is part of a loose collective of musicians, most of whom grew up in south central and west L.A.—many also attended the Academy of Music at Hamilton High School—who now record for Brainfeeder, the indie record label owned and run by Flying Lotus (Steven Ellison), grandnephew of Alice and John Coltrane. In 2011, many of these friends and fellow musicians, all of whom are part of The Epic, spent an entire month, from 10am to 2am nearly every day, recording each other's material at Kingsize Soundlabs, in Echo Park.

"It was very in-house. We didn't have an engineer," Washington says. "I've got to give 90% of the credit on that to my drummer, Tony Austin; he engineered all the sessions. When we went to mix it, I mixed it with Benjamin Tierney. That was like . . . [laughs] we were in there with the microscope. It was like, 'Move that up 0.3dB. And that, 0.5, panning to the right.' [big smile] A lot of times, when you have strings, or music that has a lot of instruments in it, things get prioritized, so it's like, I want this to shine out way in front, and all this has got to go in the back. I didn't want that. I wanted everything to live, and you can hear what you want to hear, but you can hear everything. I guess it was a bit irrational for me to want to do that, but it was amazing how, if you turn one frequency down ever so slightly, all of a sudden you could hear the strings. So we had to mix it, remix it; mix it, remix it. And then we bounced it all down to tape, and that was a whole 'nother vibe. All these things started popping out that weren't there before, and then we mastered it from the tape."

One of the first and, so far, the best album to come out of that marathon is The Epic—the aspiring, inspiring, three-CD/LP debut album of a big, generous dude who may change the world's perception of jazz in Los Angeles all by himself . . . with a little help from his friends.

"I grew up with a collective of musicians, and we all worked a lot, with a lot of people—Chaka Khan, Snoop and Raphael Saadiq, Babyface, Stanley Clarke, George Duke, Harvey Mason—and we were always all spread out all over the place. But we made a point over all these years, that we'd come back and play together. We've always been hungry to play with each other. There's a common signature sound [of the group], but we each have our own version of it. It's different branches from the same tree. Lotus asked me to make a record [from the Kingsize sessions] and said, 'Whatever you want to do.'"

Of the three terabytes of music—190 songs in all—recorded at Kingsize, Washington ended up with 45 of his own tunes, including many older songs that, he knew, "If I didn't record, I was gonna forget." While appearing on another widely acclaimed 2015 album, Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly, was a momentary distraction, Washington began to try and fashion a coherent album out of this mass of music. His first thought was to winnow it down to a single CD.

"Because we recorded so much every day, all the time, the music was like this [puts his hands in front of his face]. I couldn't even see it, couldn't hear it, didn't know what it was. So it took me six months to get my mind around it. I just started picking out the songs that I really felt, like, captured what I was trying to do when I wrote each song. I got it down to 17, but then I had to decide which ones to take out to get it to an hour of music. It was impossible. A friend of mine said, 'Why don't you just start writing string and choir parts? 'Cause inevitably that's gonna work better for some songs than it is for others.'"

His friend had a point, though when Washington was done writing the lush string and choral arrangements that help make The Epic such a sprawling, ambitious debut, he was no closer to cutting even one of his 45 tracks.

"When I went back to Lotus, I was like, 'This is the album. It's not one disc, it's three discs.' He just kinda laughed and said, 'Man, when you brought them 45 songs in here, I knew you were gonna do something like this.'" The LP set of the The Epic ($16.95) includes three black 180 gram vinyl records in sleeves with custom artwork, with all three housed in a rigid outer slipcase. Two 12" poster inserts featuring exclusive artwork by KC Woolf Haxton with a story adaptation and calligraphy by Kenturah Davis are also included. Masters were half-speed cut by Matt Colton at Alchemy Mastering.

Adding to Washington's difficulties in cutting down to a single disc's worth of music was the fact that The Epic tells a story (not really) that came to him in a dream. Or a series of dreams. Usually, this sort of . . . well . . . revelation spells nothing but trouble. The music world is littered with failed and half-baked concept records. For every Tommy, there are two or three others that are tangential, tenuous, and just plain terrible. Asked to give a brief synopsis of The Epic, the affable Washington smiles, knowing that what he's about to say might sound a little . . . fantastical.

"There's a guy that guards this gate on the top of this mountain. That's all he does. He has no aspirations, he's eternal, you see him there for years and years. And there's a village of people there who live their lives to one day be able to challenge him. But no one's beaten him in hundreds of years. It's almost a ritual. It's all they really live for. One day, the guard comes out and there's four warriors there to challenge him. The first one is really fast, but he beats him anyway. The second one is really strong, but he beats him anyway. The third is fast and strong, but he beats him anyway. The fourth one is fast and strong like the third one, but there's something different about him. The guard sees something in this person that reminds him of himself. And then he gets this thought that he never had, like, 'Oh man, I could stop doing this, let this go.' So he lets the fourth guy kill him, and just as he's about to fall and about to get pulled into the gate, he wakes up. There's more, but . . .

"The album is about what you do as a young person to prepare yourself for what you want to be as an adult. Most of the biographies, and the stories that I know of people, is you make a plan for your life, but then life does what it does. All the guys I grew up with"—most are also now parts of the touring band for The Epic—"we were planning to be these jazz musicians, we were gonna take jazz . . . but in high school, I'm playing with Snoop, Thundercat [bassist Stephen Bruner] is playing with Suicidal Tendencies, [keyboardist] Brandon [Coleman] is playing with Babyface, [bassist] Miles [Mosley] is playing with Korn, [keyboardist] Cameron [Graves] is playing with Wicked Wisdom, [trombonist] Ryan [Porter] is playing with Cameo. So we all ended up going in these directions other than jazz. I loved playing with Snoop. It was dope. It was a dream. But it wasn't what we were planning for in high school. The fact of the matter is that life is cool, it's beautiful, if you look at it with the right perspective."

What's most amazing about The Epic—after the, ummm, story, and the fact that it's a triple album that's selling briskly in 2015—is that it's drawing an audience that would rarely, if ever, listen to a jazz record, let alone go to see the music performed live. Its funky, major-key tilt and groove-heavy tonal arrangements have been compared to Ascension-era Coltrane or a friendlier, less-assaultive version of Miles Davis's fusion period. On the opening night of Washington's NYC gig, along the Greenwich Village sidewalk in front of the Blue Note stretched a line of bearded hipsters, indie-rock fans, and girls from NYU—all there to catch the next big thing. The buzz on Washington and his band had clearly spread. Adding to the momentum are the facts that he has a friendly, funny stage presence and a rhythmic, accessible way with his tenor solos, and is generous as a leader, allowing everyone in the band to take extended solos.

"People who say they don't like jazz . . . that's a huge, broad statement. They do like jazz; they just don't realize it. You say Joe Henderson, and they might not know Joe Henderson, but they like A Tribe Called Quest—and there's a bunch of Joe Henderson samples in A Tribe Called Quest's music.

"A lot modern jazz is not very personal. It feels very, like, distant. It makes people feel like they are alienated from jazz in general. And it makes musicians kind of curl up into this 'no one likes me' ball. Many jazz musicians are really saying, 'I'm just trying to capture what someone else did, or I am doing something where I do not care if you feel me. I am not trying to express myself to you.' The average person, their connection to music is based on some relatability. Music makes people feel like they are being communicated with, makes people feel like they are not alone. They want to feel something—feel that you're communicating something that they've felt before. That's why they like lyrics. It's a little more obvious. He's saying he got his heart broken by someone on a train, and I've got my heart broken by someone on a train, so I like this song.

"There's a pressure, as a musician in jazz, to almost not express yourself. To be so in your head and your technique and the difficulty of what you are doing that, like, you're not expressing yourself, you're just expressing what you know. Jazz becomes so much about what you know, technically and historically—not about who you are or what you feel, not about cleansing yourself and letting go. It's weird, though. If you put [those same musicians] in a different scenario, they'll start expressing themselves.

"Audiences, too, look at jazz like that: a music you listen to to get a perspective on history or on music theory. But as soon as you are putting yourself into it with them, they love it. There's a lot of jazz that is very expressive that never reaches people.

"The ironic thing about us—all my friends—is that we never got to play jazz for people. We always had to play other music for people. But I always knew that, as soon as I got a solo, you was gettin' a whole heap full of jazz—and you'd love it."

So far, The Epic, and the responses to it from audiences and critics alike, are proving both to be true.

dalethorn's picture

Southern California, if you have an actual full-time job there, is a hell-hole. OTOH, if you're retired, it might not be so bad holed up in an apartment in Newport Beach at $4000/month, and you don't drive anywhere on the clogged roads full of the nastiest humans this side of ISIS.

Allen Fant's picture

Great review- RB. As it turns out, this album is receiving many
accolodes. "Epic" indeed.