Exclusive interview with Kamasi Washington: “Music is bigger than any other one genre”

(ENG below the perex) Keď saxofonista a skvelý hudobník z Los Angeles – Kamasi Washington vydal na Flying Lotusovom labeli Brainfeeder svoj debutový a naozaj epický troj-album The Epic, médiá z celého sveta s ním začali zverejňovať rozhovory. Mali sme šťastie a interview cez Skype sa nám podaril dohodnúť tiež.

Vďaka viacerým komplikáciám vám rozhovor prinášame až teraz, ale väčšina tém, o ktorých sme sa rozprávali, nie sú viazané len na debutový počin Kamasiho. Tento nesmierne talentovaný hudobník, ktorý dokázal jazz dostať aj medzi mladú generáciu, v rozhovore spomína kreatívny proces okolo The Epic, hovorí o bratoch Brunerovcov (Thundercat + Ronald Bruner Jr.), Kendrickovi Lamarovi, Snoop Doggovi, o tom, aké je to živiť sa ako hudobník v Los Angeles a mnohom inom.

Rozhovor bol originálne nahratý na jeseň v roku 2015.

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Foto: Lauren Dukoff

Thank you very much for interview, I am very honored. I have these jazz interview series and I have already conducted an interview with Ravi Coltrane in Vienna, the next one is Mathew Halsall, the trumpeter from London, so… and you! I am very pleased.

This month your world tour is starting, if I am right, in Seattle?

Yeah.

Are you looking forward?

Yeah, it’s gonna be really cool, I am looking forward to it.

And what are you doing now?

We had a show last night in L.A. and we have one more show in L.A., we are doing this thing.

According to many reviews, The Epic brings jazz in an exciting form, which appeals to young audiences. Is this sort of accessibility something you had in mind from the get-go or side effect of your overall vision? Do you think there are actually methods to make jazz more attractive to young people?

I think we just kind of play the way we like to play, you know what I mean. And I think people relate to because they can relate to us, peers. Either overly focused on preserving the past or pushing the future and now we are really dealing with the present like who you are or what you are right now. And that’s what we do, we just play… to people and they feel that. It’s hard for some people to grasp the past or to accept the future, so… I don’t know I didn’t try to do that, I didn’t try to make something that people would honor. I just try to make a music, I decide to play the way I play, express myself, my experiences and people seem to like it.

It’s very cool. Your band has two drummers and two bass players, keyboard players, two lead vocals and string selection. How did you arrive with this epic format? Isn’t it very taxing to direct such a large ensemble?

Haha, it is, especially when everyone’s there! I don’t have this strange inquire, it’s a lot easier. I don’t really direct the band too much, I let them play. Part of the reason I have the double rhythm section; like I have two drummers, two bass players, two keyboard players etc., so I do that to give the musicians more freedom. As a rhythm section player, a lot of times you can get kind of trapped and your responsibility is to get always express yourself, and be creative.

Keep the rhythm going, keep the baseline going. When piano player is playing you just have to keep playing.

When it’s two people, one person can hold down the structure of the song and the responsibility of the other person is to be creative, and they can switch and other person needs to be creative. It also allows horn players to be more creative. I actually kind of came to that instrumentation by accident.

I grew up with all those musicians I have on my album and we know each other since we were kids.

Ronald Bruner and I have been friends since we were 3 years old. We’ve always played with each other our whole lives, but we never played all together, because of that – because there are two drummers, three piano players, like some of us play the same instrument.

So and one day I had a gig (somewhere), this is back in like 2003 maybe 2004. I’d called for the show Ronald Bruner – Steven Bruner’s (Thundercat) brother and Cameron Graves to be the rhythm section for a gig and the same day of the show they all cancelled on me. So I quickly called Miles Mosley and Brandon Coleman and Tony Austin to come and replace them, and somehow they all came to the show together.

We’ve never done it before and that first gig was just amazing, they played it like we have been playing it for years. No one entered, they perfectly fit, and I think it’s because they complement each other’s abilities very well. That was really fun and that’s been my band set up ever since.

Perfect. I know during the recording of The Epic you reportedly spent the whole month in the studio with West Coast Get Down. Did you enjoy it all as a creative process or did the sheer amount of work actually feel overwhelming at times?

No, you know it was actually really great because we were working on eight different projects, and I wasn’t just working on my own thing. It was like every day and even throughout the days, I mean most days we did like the firstly hours we worked on my music, and the next three hours we worked on Brandon Coleman’s music, and the next three hours we worked on Miles Mosley’s music and the next day three different people. So every day and throughout the day it was always something new and different, and there was always fresh energy, and the projects are also incredibly different, that it never felt like, you know… you were using a different part of your brain and different skills, you were playing different music all day long.

Actually I am a drummer, I have a band. We recently recorded our album in the studio and we were like three days and three nights altogether and it’s crazy.

Yeah yeah, you really get to know someone to spend so much time with them.

In an interview with Ravi Coltrane he told us that he sees jazz and money as more or less two separate worlds and that they don’t really intersect too much. You yourself have been quite active beyond the boundaries of the jazz. Is this simply due to a wide range of musical interest or there is a bit of financial reasoning in the background?

No, you know I love music. I mean we have these terms that we use to separate music, we call this music jazz, we call that music hip-hop, but they are all connected to me. Sometimes there is a good music I like, and music I don’t really like. Anyone who makes their living as a musician has definitely play music they don’t like because he needs to pay the rent, but it’s not separate. I have played music, that I didn’t really like, to make money before, but it’s not like I wanna play hip-hop and I am playing it to make money. I was so honored, I was so excited to work on Kendrick Lamar’s album, especially when I heard it, I think it’s an amazing music.

This is connected from what I do and that sense that we are all heading to something totally different. Every music is different. If you want to play my version of jazz, which is like if you wanna play with Stanley Clarke – it’s different…

If you wanna play with Harvey Mason, they’re different. Every musical experience is different, but they are also all related. Kendrick Lamar is related to what I do, in a similar way to Stanley Clarke is related to what I do or my own music.

I think I am older to have tried to do too much music that I don’t like. It wears on you, it has a lingering effect on you musically, and spiritually, it’s not good for me. I have really tried enough to do that, I have tried enough to put myself in situations when I am making music that I don’t like.

And maybe in general in L.A. for some young saxophonist or jazz player, is it hard to make money for living with music?

It’s hard if you don’t put the time in it, and if you don’t have an open mind. If your mindset is like I just want to play jazz, and other styles of music are inferior – if that’s your mindset, then it becomes difficult. Especially in L.A., the opportunities are there, but there’re spread out across the music as a whole. If you’re not really willing to play other styles of music, if you don’t hear, if you don’t understand the connections; then yes, it can be difficult.

I know really really really great musicians who do struggle financially, and we all struggle financially in different ways. It is like how hard you take care of your money. I do find real musicians who are cultivating their skills and who have an open mind and who understand the music and not just a certain genre of music. There’s a certain degree of understanding of jazz and if you really have no understanding… there’s to be shown a lack of understanding a music in general… Music is bigger than any one genre. The fundamental principles of music they apply to all styles of music. I do wonder about people who say they don’t necessarily understand all styles of music but anyways…

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One of your first jobs was as a player in Snoop Dogg’s live band. What was this period like and what did you take from it to help you in your next career?

It was interesting, I was in a high school, I hadn’t really played any other music than jazz. I listened to a lot of music, I liked a lot of styles of music, but I was carrying myself up to be a straight-up jazz musician, that was my plan. I was 18-years-old. I had a friend named Terrace Martin that actually put me on Kendrick Lamar’s album, who’s a great saxophone player himself, and he sort of worked with Snoop and he called me: “Snoop wants to put a horn section together for his live band, you wanna do it?” I was like sure, yeah. I grew up listening to Snoop. It wasn’t my plan at all, but it was cool, like “Oh man, I am gonna play with Snoop.” And actually I’ve learned a lot, musically, and definitely some life lessons (laugh).

It was a pretty crazy tour, but, at that point, my musical experience was coming out of jazz, I had seriously taken in too many other styles of music, but my real study was all in jazz for most of the part in high school. When playing with Snoop I realized immediately most of his band was actually jazzmen, it was myself, Terrace Martin, I met great jazz trombone player, Robert Searight, the drummer from Snarky Puppy, Thundercat – he was the bass player; it was a lot of jazz musicians in this band, but the leaders of the band were DJ Battlecat, Superfly, T-LO, Marlon Williams. They were all coming from West Coast hip-hop, so what they gave to all of us was this understanding.

They’ve never asked us to play anything technically difficult ever. Everything was like two, three notes, cordes, it was very simple stuff, but their expectations on how you played, it was more detailed and more particular than I had anyone ever tell me to play. They wanted to play it in this exact way that was related to how everything else is played. Everything had this kind of micro-connection and if the drums are playing and feeling in this way, then the bass player had to play his baseline in this very particular way. It did match if you played the right note or right rhythm, you had to play those right notes and right rhythms and in a very particular way. So you had to be able to hear music in greater detail than I was used to listening to music. It was almost like looking at the world through a microscope, all of a sudden, and when I then took the same mentality and put it into jazz, my jazz playing had a whole new kind of depth. Just to be able to hear what someone is doing on that level you have to really really listen.

Sometimes in jazz people just don’t listen and that is no way you could ever play with Snoop, it wouldn’t be okay. I got a whole new kind of connecting, and now also a lot of guys in my band, that idea kind of spread amongst us.

So you learned a lot. I know from interviews and articles that Kendrick supervised all aspects of the album very closely. Did you have some sort of creative input beyond the level of playing your instrument? How hard is for you, as a leader of equally complex musical projects, to adapt to someone else’s vision?

He was involved but he actually gave us complete and total creative control of what we were doing. He was there, and he was interacting and listening, but he wasn’t dictating to us what he wants us to do. It was actually reverse.

He (Kendrick) gave myself and Thundercat and Terrace Martin more room to empire our musical essence than any major artist I ever worked with.

A lot of times the other artists I worked for, they don’t give you as much freedom, but they are also not there. They do tell you the only one that is little bit required. Kendrick was there and he was involved but he was just like: “I want you to do whatever you want to do, to play what you hear. Whatever you think is dope, do that.” He is so talented that he could hear what you were doing and then kind of guide you into his vision, but it was still within the construct of who you are and what you were hearing. There was a lot of creative freedom.

Are you still friends with Kendrick?

Yeah, I met him when I started doing the record. He is super cool, he is a really great guy.

What is your optimal time and setting for you to create music? How often do you practice? Do you have the home recording studio?

I practice every day. We try to, but it’s getting harder these days.

How many hours a day?

I practice as much as I possibly can but these days it’s two-three hours. When I was younger I used to practice all day long, eight – nine hours. I like it, it’s fun for me. It’s not like a chore. I don’t have an optimal time, for say, anytime it’s all the same to me. I don’t have like I work best at this time. I just work best when I have free time. Sometimes it’s hard to squeeze it in between two other things. Even though I was working for three hours, it’s just the thought that I only have three hours that kind of makes it more difficult.

Are there any other activities that help you relax? I think I saw some Mortal Kombat screenshots on your Instagram.

Haha, yeah, I am a big fighting game fan. Street Fighter actually is my main game. Fortunately, these days there’s not much time to play. I used to be really really really into it. Street Fighter V. I am back in 100%. Mortal Kombat too, for sure (laughs)!

And your music?

I listen to a lot of different music. It just depends on the time. Hip-hop, jazz, classical music, European classical music, Nigerian music, folk, R’n’B, I have a pretty wide range of stuff, electronic music, some DJs, Gaslamp (Killer), Ras G (all from Brainfeeder label, editor’s note).

You’ve said that you actually recorded enough material – eight projects. Can we look forward to some or all of the remaining music being released (with West Coast Get Down)?

All that music was in mind, we actually worked on eight different projects for eight different people. I do have a lot more music that I recorded and, of course, when recording we ended up like 190 songs, but 45 of that songs were mine, all the rest were for other people, other members of West Coast Get Down. Ronald Bruner has a record coming very soon, also Brandon Coleman and Miles Mosley, Ryan Porter, Patrice Quinn, they all have records coming really soon.

What are your feelings now that your debut record, which is truly epic, is finally out? How do you handle the media attention? What are your plans for the immediate future?

We have a tour coming out, it’s all starting at the end of this month, I am trying to make that happen. That’s my main focus right now. We are going to release the vinyl version of the album, so I’ve been working on that. There’s just a whole storyline, when I was recording the album, I kind of dreamed it, tried to work that off. We’re trying to collectively figure out the way to get all the rest of that music we recorded out, to get my friends albums out, and we are looking at different options of how we can do that as well.

It takes just a little bit of my time, I don’t overreact to it. It doesn’t have a huge effect on me.

Have you ever tried to make a hip-hop beat?

Yeah I used to make a hip-hop music a lot, like when I was playing with Snoop. I had a little production tool…

…like MPC?

Yeah, MPC 2000.

Can we hear some beats?

Haha I don’t know. I’ve actually been thinking of going back to… cause there were some cool musical ideas, who knows. I was really into it for whole three years, I was definitely really into that. And even now I mess around. Song writing down, it’s not much like making a beat. I don’t know if it comes out, maybe, possibly (laughs).

Maybe on some secret soundcloud webpage.

Yeah (laughs).

You haven’t got stops in Central Europe like Prague or Vienna, why’s that?

The team – that’s how they booked my tour. We came in a little late. We are trying to get the nearest places as we possibly can. We have to wait to next year to get everywhere I wanna go. Even inside of the U.S. it’s been hard. It takes time for the word to spread… It’s not like I don’t wanna go there. I couldn’t work out a situation to get there.

So I am looking forward and thank you very much.

Thank you.

Kamasi Washington will play 23. 5. at Divadlo Archa, Prague, as a part of Respect Festival organized by Rachot agency.

Questions + Text: Krištof Budke / Translation: Denisa Funtíková / Special Thanks: Michal Spáda

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