How Kamasi Washington reshaped jazz to become its biggest modern star

The saxophonist, who marked regional debut performance at Abu Dhabi Festival last weekend, speaks exclusively to The National

Kamasi Washington arrives at the 64th Annual Grammy Awards. AP
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Jazz thrives in camaraderie, and Kamasi Washington can tell you how better than most.

The saxophonist’s roots in the genre lay in the garden of his family house in Los Angeles. As a teenager, he’d get together with other young musicians from the neighbourhood, jamming in the shed until well past midnight. Friends would show off new scales to each other and boast about how long they’d been practising that day. When one wanted to play a song, they all had to learn it. It was an environment of healthy competition and collective learning. That shed was where some of the most esteemed figures in contemporary jazz found their form.

“Some of us were little, little kids,” Washington said. “We’d drive my dad crazy, play real loud jazz until two in the morning. Sometimes we’d sneak into concerts. We’d listen to records, talk about music, show each other scales, make up patterns.”

Miles Mosley, Ryan Porter, Terrace Martin, Ronald Bruner Jr and his brother Stephen – better known as Thundercat – were all part of this young collective, which became known as West Coast Get Down. The group heralded a new shape of jazz, becoming a prominent force in the genre’s resurgence in the 21st century.

Washington still performs and records with many of his childhood friends. His studio albums, including the critically acclaimed The Epic (2015) and Heaven and Earth (2018), came about as Washington strove to bring back together the people he felt most musically connected with.

And when he marked his regional debut at Abu Dhabi Festival on Saturday, many of his friends, as well as his father – saxophonist and flautist Rickey Washington – performed at the Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental with him.

The band’s tight-knit dynamic and musical intimacy was evident in the performance. Harmonies flourished and improvisations alchemised seamlessly as they played through a generous set list from Washington’s oeuvre. Mosley dribbled rhythms on his bass before unexpectedly shifting gears with bowed lead lines. Porter’s musical passages on the trombone were a soul-stirring experience. Brandon Coleman took on the keys with melodies synthesised by fire. Cameron Graves’s electric piano was arpeggiated bliss and verve.

Dontae Winslow, on the other hand, spurned the crowd’s fervency as a trumpeter as well as an emcee. Tony Austin and Mike Mitchell brought synchronised as well as syncopated charge on the drum line. The vocals of Queen Shic, meanwhile, took the listener to the skies. The Washingtons were as transcendental, with Rickey expertly measuring melodies on the flute and Kamasi spattering his saxophone with a thrill that would make Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane proud.

And this all happened with clockwork precision and a sense of communication that can only come about after years of collaboration.

“We speak the same language. It’s the language we kind of developed together,” Washington said, speaking to The National ahead of the performance. “As we were going up, any time one of us got into something, we kind of forced the rest of us to get into it. I remember when Thundercat got into Stanley Clarke, all of a sudden we had to learn all of Stanley Clarke’s music because that’s what he wanted to play.”

This mutual learning experience translates to an ineffable dynamic, both in the studio and on stage.

“A lot of things that we do go unexplained,” Washington said. “We don't have to tell each other what to do. If one person starts playing something, then everyone else kind of knows what to do. I feel very blessed to have that. Most people have to kind of search the world for their musicians. God put them in my backyard.”

Another surprise moment during the concert came when three UAE singers, including brothers Hamdan and Arqam Al Abri, took to the stage with Fafa to perform alongside the band. The collaboration was a soulful one, and even when rehearsing the piece during soundcheck, Washington said he found a kinship in their music that he was not expecting to encounter during his visit.

“They started singing for me, and I’m like ‘you sound like you’re from Compton’,” Washington said. “They have so much soul and so much connection. It was amazing to me that the music can stretch beyond space and time. It felt like they were speaking the same language as us.”

Washington’s career is testament to how unlikely collaborations are integral to developing an intuitive musical sense. In fact, it was performing with hip-hop artists that made him a better jazz musician, he says, particularly when it came to developing his approach to phrasing.

While Washington is a pillar of contemporary jazz, it is perhaps his collaborations in hip-hop that he is most famous for. His first proper touring experience came while he was in his second year at UCLA, when he began performing with Snoop Dogg. The experience, he said, was a masterclass in phrasing.

“When I first joined the band, I was definitely much more than just like a straight jazz musician,” he said. “I hadn't really done any gigs. I had listened to rap but I never played in a rap crew, I never played live like that. We were asked to play these lines that I kind of thought were easy. Then we play it, but it wasn’t it. I was definitely playing those notes, but it was in the phrasing. How you play a note, how you play a phrase or a song is just as important as what you play. You can play the rhythm and the note, but if you don’t play it with the right feel, they’ll hear it as wrong.”

Another pivotal collaboration came when Washington worked, along with other members of West Coast Get Down, with Kendrick Lamar. Washington said he had already been a fan of the Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper before he arrived in the studio to work on string arrangements for the 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly.

“Way back in 2009, Terrace played me some stuff that he was working on with Kendrick, and he was like ‘this dude is going to be like the John Coltrane of hip-hop’. I was a huge fan of his records,” Washington said.

“I went in the studio, and Kendrick and Terrace played me the record, and it was 70 per cent done when I came in. It was already amazing. They just wanted me to do one song, Mortal Man. But to get context for what that song and that skit with the poem meant, they played me the whole record, and as they’re playing me the record, I was like ‘oh, let me put some on this song too, and this other one too’. Then it just turned into me just kind of working on several songs. Kendrick was really open, there was no pushback. It was all about the music.”

However, there was a caveat to working on To Pimp a Butterfly that Washington wasn’t expecting before getting into the studio. He couldn’t take any of the tracks home. He had to write the string arrangements right there and then.

“It was like a weird kind of process to write in the studio, like that,” Washington said, but ultimately the experience would enhance his own skills as a composer and expand his musical vocabulary.”

Washington returned to work with Lamar on the 2018 album Damn, another illustrious collaboration in a list that includes projects and performances with the likes of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Flying Lotus and Lauryn Hill.

Washington is now working on his fifth studio album, and though he said it is a work in progress and he isn’t sure what it is going to be called, it is centred around the theme of movement, and explores his newfound status as a father.

“Fatherhood has definitely had a big influence on it,” he said. “My daughter was born in 2020, which is pretty much when I started working on this record, and it definitely completely changed my perspective. It taught me what true love is. That's a beautiful state of being, you know, it's a vulnerable state but it’s a beautiful thing. I didn't know how powerful that feeling would be until I felt it. It affected the music that I was hearing.”

While his previous studio albums have been epic in both length and substance, Washington says his forthcoming record will be “a bit more grounded.”

“These ideas [in the album] are a bit more grounded. This record is more grounded.”

Updated: February 07, 2024, 12:30 PM