Changing the Guard: The Epic Journey of Kamasi Washington

[This may very well be my favorite interview of my career so far. First and foremost it’s one of the most intimate, revealing and fascinating conversations I’ve had with an artist. Secondly, I think The Epic is one of the most important jazz albums to come out in a decade.

And because I caught wind of the album and published the piece so early on, for the first time I was able to actually observe how a narrative I coined had noticeable reverberations in subsequent descriptions of Kamasi, the album and recent resurgence of jazz that we’re currently observing.

It has also led to continued relationship with Kamasi, which includes a tribute to Ornette Coleman I got him to write, and a playlist to accompany a piece he wrote for our friends at The Talkhouse.]

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Sometimes a name speaks for itself.

Such is the case with the The Epic, the brazen and aptly-titled debut release from young Los Angeles jazz giant, composer and bandleader Kamasi Washington, and TIDAL’s HiFi Album of the Month.

Divided into three symbolic volumes – The Plan, The Glorious Tale and The Historic Repetition – the album is the amalgamation of wisdom collected in Washington’s 30 years as a musician.

More concretely, The Epic is the story of Kamasi Washington, his band the Next Step and their collective mission to remove jazz from the shelf of relics and make it new, unexpected and dangerous again.

Largely growing up in Los Angeles, as second generation jazz artists, Washington and Co. bear a heavy torch in scorching their own legacy in the annals of jazz, as well as that of those who came before and after. First and foremost, The Epic is a stunning debut from a musician on the cutting edge of contemporary art.

We talked at length with Kamasi Washington about his journey, his masterful debut, and working with Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus. Of the many questions we had about the album, why he titled it The Epic was not one of them.

* * *

How did you get into music?

My dad is a musician so I‘ve been playing music since I was two years old. I started off on drums, then the piano at five or six, then the clarinet at eight or nine. My dad is a saxophone player too, but he wouldn’t let me play saxophone right away. Back in his day you had to be a “doubler,” and play at least two instruments. Saxophone is the easiest of the woodwind instruments, so I had to learn clarinet first.

Because it’s harder?

Yeah, it’s harder. He actually just told me they were the same thing. [laughs] By around 10 or 11 I was reading jazz. I started playing Wayne Shorter tunes and learning songs by Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, but those are really hard on clarinet. One day, when I was about 13, my dad left out his soprano saxophone and I just picked it up. The very first time I played saxophone I could play my very favorite Wayne Shorter song, “Sleeping Dancer Sleep On,” and from that point on I was hooked. It became my whole life: I was a saxophone player.

It almost sounds like your dad had this grand plan all along.

His plan was for me to get good on clarinet and then switch to saxophone, but I wasn’t going to wait. When he heard me playing sax he got more serious about my playing too. He took me to his friend Calvin, who was a collector of videos, before you could look things up on YouTube. Calvin had this video of Eric Dolphy playing with Charles Mingus, and my dad just wanted to see how I reacted to Eric Dolphy, to see how heavy I was, and I just fell in love. After that he was like, “Okay, you’re a saxophone player now.” I was 13 years old.

You really have been at this your whole life. Yet this album is being billed as your debut. Is that accurate?

Well, it’s the first album I’ve put out there for the whole world. Right out of high school I had a band called the Young Jazz Giants, which was myself, Thundercat [Stephen Bruner], his brother Ronald Bruner [Jr.] and Cameron Graves. We all grew up together: Thundercat and Ronald’s dad played music with my dad, so I’ve been friends with him since I was a baby. We grew up together with all the guys in my band [The Next Step].

We were all really talented musicians, and after high school we all got pulled in different directions. I was playing with Snoop, Ronald was playing with Kenny Garrett, Stephen was playing with Suicidal Tendencies, Miles [Mosley] was playing in an offshoot group from Korn, Cameron was playing with Wicked Wisdom, Brandon Colman was playing with BabyFace … so we all got spread out across all these musical situations.

When we were all back home we’d play together and record. So I made recordings – people in L.A. have them – but I didn’t release anything besides two albums. One of them I made for my grandfather. He was friendly to jazz, but he was really into gospel too, and he felt there had never really been a straight-ahead gospel record in jazz. He wanted me to make a gospel record that sounded like In A Silent Way [Miles Davis record]. I made that record for him.

I was making a lot of money playing with Snoop, Lauren Hill and Raphael Saadiq, and I had a little studio in my house. I made another record in there called The Proclamation, but I didn’t put it out. So this really is the first record I’m putting out for the world to hear.

Well you didn’t exactly start out small, man….

[laughs]

…this is a record that truly lives up to its name.

I mean, when [Flying] Lotus hit me up to do this record, I asked him, “What kind of record do you want me to make?” He was like, “Whatever you want to make.” I was like, “Uh, okay.” [laughs] That was very liberating for me, to be able to do something the size of my ambitions.

So me and the Next Step, we rented out a studio for a whole month. They all had things they wanted to record too, so when I said I had this thing to do for Brainfeeder [Flying Lotus’s label], we just decided to commit to each other for that month. We had to tell everyone we were working we were busy for the whole of December 2011. Some of them were a little mad actually. [chuckles]

We were in there anywhere from 10 in the morning until 3 in the morning – recording all day, every day. In the end we all walked away with these staggering amounts of music. In total we had something like eight albums, 190 songs, almost three terabytes worth of music – it was pretty crazy. Just for myself I walked away with 45 songs.

I got back and showed Lotus the 45 songs from that month and I said I wanted to reduce it to one album. I took the 45 and reduced it to 17 songs that I really thought were exactly what I wanted them to be. They were perfect; I wouldn’t change anything about them. I showed Lotus those, and said I was going to try to reduce it again to fit one album.

In the process of trying to do that I was listening to the music a lot. That’s when I started writing string and choir arrangements around what we had done in the studio. I was literally listening to these songs every single day, all day, to the point it crept into my subconscious. I was watching a lot of anime and a lot of movies, and I wasn’t sleeping a lot. I started having this reoccurring dream.

It started off with the changing of the guard. In the dream, there’s this old man guarding this gate at the top of a mountain. And there’s this dojo at the bottom of the mountain where all they do is train, and it twists and turns from there, as the man on the mountain waits for a challenger to come defeat him.

And every song had this significance to the story, almost like a soundtrack to this dream. I could tell the whole story, to the extent I was questioning, could I have even dreamed that? It was so detailed and deep, something was telling me that this was the album – it had to be all the songs. They were so perfect, I couldn’t change them. So I went back to Lotus and he asked, “So what songs are going on the album?” And I said, “Uh…all 17.” [laughs]

We both laughed and he said, “I knew you were going to do that. So how are we going to do it? Are we going to release them all at once?” I said, “Yeah. They’re all one thing, they go together.” And he was cool with that.

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Can you talk a little more about the significance of the “Changing of the Guard.”

You know, my dad is a musician, and within jazz L.A. has this history of being overlooked as this hub for artistic advancement. I grew up seeing my dad and all these really brilliant friends of his, wondering why these guys weren’t famous. I used to go to New York and get tripped up that people didn’t know who Gerald Wilson was; to me, he was my hero.

In music, and especially in jazz, it’s a tradition that one generation passes the torch along to the next. And so [“Change of the Guard”] was really a tribute to that generation, my dad’s, that never really got the torch handed to them. Even in my generation, with people like Isaac Smith and all of us [in the Next Step], we’re not young; we’ve been in the game for a while and people just haven’t really known about us. That’s what the Changing of the Guard originally meant.

Ironically, for those who are in the know, people have put you in the line of Coltrane and Davis. Is that an uncomfortable comparison for you?

Wow… that’s a surreal comparison to me. [nervous laugh] Those are my heroes. But I do also believe that music is about change and mutation. I tell my band members all the time, “You can be yourself. Your music is just as valid as any music that’s ever happened in history.” The notion that somehow music of the past is what’s valid, and what we do now is just in celebration of that, I don’t really believe that. I believe the music that’s being made today is needed and necessary to the people who are living today.

The music of the past is what made me who I am, but my music is most largely connected to the people living today. When John Coltrane wrote “Alabama,” that event in history is what caused him to write that. For me “Change of the Guard” is about my dad and these brilliant musicians from L.A. who got overlooked in the ‘70s and ‘80s. That’s something that couldn’t have been done by anyone else who didn’t live the life that I lived.

So the comparison to someone like John Coltrane is a little overwhelming for me, but at the same time, I do feel like my music and my friend’s music and the music we’re making today in general is just as valid as what they were making in the Sixties.

I guess the music of the past has the unfair advantage of having already withstood the test of time.

Yeah, and that cycle is constantly repeating itself. Gerald Wilson was one of my mentors, and he was there for that. The way he talks about how it was, they were facing the same obstacles we are: people not understanding what they were doing, artists not understanding each other.

It’s interesting to hear that John Coltrane went through the same things I have. There was a time when he wasn’t “relevant” because Lester Young was the one that was “relevant.” I don’t want to make that same mistake. I believe in my music and the music of my peers, and I want to stand up for that music and defend it and sell it. It’s connected to the past, but it’s not secondary to it.

Can we talk a little but more about the structure of the album? The way it’s separated into three volumes?

The Plan is about how we grew up: my dad was a musician, Ronald’s dad is a musician, Cameron’s dad is a musician, Brandon’s older brother is a musician, Tony’s dad is a musician….

So we had this idea of a plan, that if you work real hard, if you’re honest and creative, and you cultivate yourself to be something, you’d have an opportunity to have a voice and in the world, help the world, change the world. There was an importance to what we were doing and we all bought into it, we all believed in it.

Then you get a little older, maybe around 18 or 19 years old. You get to the real world, and the doors you think are going to be open for you, because you put in the time and effort, aren’t necessarily open for you. My plan was that I was going to play saxophone, write music, and give back to my neighborhood, but there’s no real place to do this. So the The Plan, is about how, as a young man, you had these plans of things you wanted to do, you prepared to do, and then real life happens.

The next record, The Glorious Tale, is about how life is glorious, life is beautiful, but it doesn’t happen the way you anticipate. My first tour with Snoop Dogg wasn’t my plan, but it was amazing. I learned a lot, about life as well as music. To me happiness is about understanding your desires, and recognizing and appreciating what you do have, what really happens. The first record is about what I wanted my life to be and the second is about what my life actually was.

And then the third album, [The Historic Repetition], is about how things have a way of repeating themselves. I read about John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, and [Dolphy] was so elated and happy about having his own gigs in Europe. And I was like, wow, Eric Dawson went through that? He didn’t get to do whatever he wanted to do?

So I realized that history is inevitably going to repeat itself, so it’s about perspective. And that is going to depend on how well you know the story. And depending how well you know it, it’s going to determine what character you play in this repeating story. I look around at my dad and people I know and they play a different part than me. The Historic Repetition is about when you know the story you can change your position in the story.

Damn dude.

[laughs]

You mentioned how playing in Snoop Dogg’s band changed your perspective on music.

There’s a degree of detail in hip-hop that I hadn’t encountered before. Jazz is so wide and expansive, but we don’t listen to it with that sense of precision. We’d be playing something pretty simple – I mean not that complicated in any technical sense – but it was super complicated in the sense of how they wanted you to play in this very particular way. They wouldn’t know how they were playing it, they wouldn’t know how to talk about it, but they knew the right sound when they heard it. Whereas in jazz you’re looking at the world through a telescope, they were looking through a microscope. It had a profound effect on how all of us [in Snoop’s band] approached music.

Can you talk a bit more about Brainfeeder and working with Flying Lotus?

Lotus has a vision, and he’s so driven. He’s open but he’s very, very decisive at the same time. Like when I was working on his album, You’re Dead, it really stressed me out how fast he worked. He’d play me a song I didn’t know, and I’d just start playing along, trying to figure it out and he’d say, “Great, got it, let’s move on.” [laughs]. I was like, “You were recording that?”

He just knows. Like when I told him I was putting out a triple disc, it took him 10 seconds to accept and react – it was like a three-minute conversation. Lotus and Brainfeeder, they allow you to be creative. In most recording situations, the music doesn’t get to be as great as it can be because someone has their hands in there where they probably shouldn’t be.

It’s the same remarkable thing as when I was working on Kendrick Lamar’s record. There was no one in the room making weirdo, non-music decisions. The music was allowed to be as great as it could possibly be. That’s what Lotus and Brainfeeder have: the ability to see the potential for something amazing to happen.

Since you mention it, how did you come to work on To Pimp a Butterfly?

It started with [producer] Terrace Martin. Nowadays he’s a major hip-hip producer but when I first heard him he was a saxophone player; he sounded exactly like a mix between Jackie McLean and John Coltrane. I was working on his album, which is coming out soon, called Velvet Portraits. When he heard about my album, he wanted to hear it. When I showed it to him, the light went off in his head, and he said “I’ve got something I need you to work on.”

I knew that he and Thundercat had been working on the Kendrick album, for years at that point. [laughs] So he had me come into the studio, just to write the music for that final skit where Kendrick is interviewing Tupac. They wanted this Spike Lee, cinematic feel. They played the skit for me and I got goose bumps all over. I said, ”Where did this come from?” Kendrick and Terrace realized I needed to hear the whole album to appreciate the scope of what that final interview was really about.

It’s profound the way it’s connected to every track that proceeds it.

It floored me. We listened to the album three times – back to back to back – and every time we listened to it, they pointed out a new song, “You should play on that one, you should be on that one.” By the time it was over there were four or five songs they wanted me to write on.

It was pretty late into the album’s creation, so they were pretty tight on security. They wouldn’t let me take the music home. I had to write the music there in the studio.

Really?

Yeah, Kendrick was just there on the couch, watching me write. [laughs] You know, strings on this, cello on that… He wasn’t breathing down my neck, he was just curious about the process of how you go from music in your head to music on paper to music you hear.

He’s a passionate guy. My job was pretty time consuming, so we were kind of laughing about what to do. I was there writing until three in the morning, and he never left the studio. I was like, Damn dude, when do you sleep?

And all for fear of the album leaking?

Yeah, I guess they had to do it that way. When that happened I was like, Shit, you might as well put a tracking tag on me. [laughs]

[Photos by Mike Park]



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