“We have been playing for audiences that are not necessarily traditional jazz audiences,” says tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington, by phone from Los Angeles. “The people that come to our shows, a lot of them say that it’s the first time that they have been to a jazz show, but there are also long-standing jazz fans as well.”
The effect, elegance and sheer volume of Washington’s 2015 debut album The Epic shook the notion of genre to its very core. Depending on who one speaks to, the term “jazz” can either be fully embraced or seen as a pejorative with separatist ambitions. With Washington, the term perhaps finds a resigned acceptance as an easy identifier of the spirit embodied by his unit, The Next Step, and their approach to playing music.
“[Our approach has affected a lot of people] who looked at jazz as something of the past and not the present,” he says. “Jazz has always been about the present — self-expression, expressing yourself in the moment. That’s what the real spirit and energy of jazz is. I think people are realising that, and in that there is a freedom.”
In many senses, Washington, who was born in 1981, represents the confluence of the past and the future. The Epic was released on friend Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder label, a label more synonymous with electronic music than it is with Washington’s self-assured three-hour collection. But the excitement around its release validated the patient groundwork being laid by the iconoclasts of the Los Angeles beat scene, people who, in some cases, were Washington’s childhood friends.
“For a long time musicians blamed DJs for taking over the club,” says Washington. “Then the electronic music scene and the DJ scene breathed life into the live music scene, with people like Flying Lotus, Gaslamp [Killer], Ras G, people like Thundercat, who use these sounds in combination and people like Kendrick Lamar. It [Los Angeles] feels like a very open and creative space … you can do anything you want and people are ready to experience something new.”
The Next Step, a kind of latter-day big band, settled on its approach as a result of fortuitous accidents and the unshakeable spectre of tradition. Washington was introduced to music by his father Rickey Washington. Washington Sr is a wind instrument specialist who taught music for a living.
“When we were growing up, he was always pushing for us to learn the structure and that was good for us too,” remembers Kamasi, “because we always wanted to improvise and just create in the moment. He was always pushing us to learn history and to learn structure and we had to, because he made us.”
Washington’s first introduction to the saxophone (he started out as a drummer) was by having to sing the notes of a Charlie Parker solo to his father. He passed that test. Although Washington Sr was a mainstay of the Los Angeles jazz scene, raising four children (Kamasi’s parents divorced when he was three) put paid to his ambitions as a professional musician.
“I grew up listening to my dad play and going to his gigs with him,” says Washington. “He really put his career on hold to stay at home and be a father to my brothers and sisters and I always wished that he would get out and play more when I was a kid because he was so good. Before my album came out, he retired from teaching so he finally was free to come out on the road. To have him come out on the road with me is really special.”
The band has two drummers, an acoustic and electronic bass player, a keyboard player, a pianist, a horn section and a vocalist/vibes matriarch in the form of Patrice Quinn.
Explaining the shape the band took, Washington says: “I grew up with a group of musicians and we all knew each other as kids and everybody was touring a lot. Around 2002 I was playing at this club in Lamar Park in south central LA. I called Robert Bruner Jr [drums], Cameron Graves [piano], Stephen Bruner [bass player known as Thundercat] and they were all supposed to play the gig. That night they cancelled on me. So I ended up calling Brandon Coleman [keyboards], Miles Mosley [upright bass] and Tony Austin [drums].
“But then everybody ended up showing up. So we were trying to figure out what we were going to do. So I was just, like, why don’t we all just play together and see what happens. So after that night we just never moved back.”
On stage, Washington and crew summon the fierce improvisational charge of late-era Coltrane, fed by ambitious solos and underscored by grooves that betray an irreverence for static time signatures.
It is electric: think the resurrection of Bernie Worrell when keyboardist Brandon Coleman lines up for a turn. Quinn brings an ethereal visual presence to the band, with a strong sense of voice control rooted in her abilities as a performance artist.
Washington is touted as a political artist, with writer Greg Tate calling him “the jazz voice of Black Lives Matter”. As jazz artists, Washington and crew are not strictured by song lyrics, so their challenge has been to refine the use of the medium as a tool for commentary.
His new project, Harmony of Difference, is a six-movement suite that is a philosophical use of counterpoint as a study in the beauty of diversity. It can be heard until June as part of the Whitney Biennial in New York.
“In the climate of our political situation in the United States right now there has been a lot of negative attention towards diversity,” he says. “In Los Angeles, there are so many different types of people. There are people from all parts of the world. Any part of the world you can think of, there is someone in Los Angeles from there.
“It was always a blessing for me. I always felt like it was a beautiful thing that I could go and experience different food, different music, different culture and clothing. This whole thing that diversity is a problem that needs to be solved, I’ve never agreed with that.”
The first five movements comprise songs from different parts of the world, and the sixth, accompanied by a projected film, combines all those compositions into one.
It’s an ambitious project, but one to be expected from someone who is not shying away from leading the charge of a generation from the front.
Kamasi Washington will play at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival’s Kippies Stage on Friday March 31