“Take a category for what it is: it’s a tool you use to help organize music. It’s not something to protect.”
Kamasi Washington’s The Epic is a frontrunner for this website’s album of the year. It absolutely lives up to its name, with three hours of ever morphing and gorgeous jazz. We talked to the L.A. based sax-player and bandleader about the dreams that created The Epic, the ever changing world of jazz and making Debussy into a “bubblebath love song.”
I noticed a lot of tributes to heroes on the album. There’s “Henrietta Our Hero,” the “Indian warrior” of “Cherokee,” “Malcolm’s Theme” and “The Magnificent 7” which is either about the western film or the original Seven Samurai right?
Absolutely. “The Magnificent 7” is actually about a homage to a band I was playing with a lot. That was the band I started writing a lot of songs for this album with. “Henrietta Our Hero” is about my grandmother, who was a very powerful figure in my family. She was a little small woman, but she did a lot with a very little. She struggled with some mental illness and stuff like that, but even with all that, she helped my dad and all his brothers buy their first homes, she got me my first car, she got my brother his first car, she did a lot for someone who didn’t have much to work with.
“Malcolm’s Theme”—when I was younger I got caught up in gangs and I was headed down that path. I had two things that brought me out of that, I had a cousin give me an Art Blakey mixtape and I was in this program and we read Malcolm X’s autobiography. I always wanted to give that same thing back. It had such a profound effect on me that maybe I could help someone else. If I could do something that people would look back on the message he was giving during his life, with the music. There are a lot of dedications to people who had an impact on my life or the world.
With all the tributes to heroes, along with the title, it really feels like the album could have soundtracked some sort of epic movie as well.
Yeah, actually when I was finishing up the album I got to re-record the initial band so, we kind of locked ourselves away or a month in a studio and recorded a bunch of music. For 30 days, me and all my friends really dedicated ourselves to recording each others’ music. We ended up doing eight projects, 190 songs and terabytes of music, in the process of me sorting through the 45 songs for my own projects, I kind of did start having this dream and the dream started forging the songs on the album and even the order of the songs and the titles on the different discs out of these dreams I started having.
The dream about the guy guarding the gate, right?
Yeah, and it sounded like a movie too. It took me like a year to really like after we did the initial recordings and finish the album–well two years really. During that time I got a little obsessed with that dream, I would force myself to have it and wake up and try to write it down. I would force myself to dream something. I could make it come back. Sometimes I was just day dreaming and just write it down myself and create something and sometimes it was really long stories. I called it The Epic, as in a story, not necessarily as a big thing.
I interviewed Ishmael Butler from Shabazz Palaces a while ago, and he talked about something similar for studio work: just going in there for hours at a time, not seeing the sun and kind of going into a different world. I’m wondering about your sessions; after all that time and having all those people in one space, how do you keep people from not butting heads or going crazy?
We had to take a little break from each other because we got so entangled with one another. Music is an instantly connecting thing, and we were just making so much music so often. It was really all day, every day. It was like a void—you start to feel like you’re losing it—I don’t know how to explain it. Your perception of reality—just everything—you’re pushing on your creativity so much that you get an overactive imagination. So we had to chill for a little while because you start seeing things that aren’t there…it was a bit wild for a little while—towards the end. In the beginning, it was all really, really just great, but towards the end it was like ‘man we’ve been in here for a lot of hours.’ Thousands of hours– no hundreds of hours–no that’s thousands of hours—hundreds of hours? I don’t know, one of the two, it was a lot of hours.
I was wondering about the studio mind space, because I saw the Youtube video of you doing an improv session with a bassist. Is there a difference in the mindset you go into when it’s more composed music as opposed to more improvisational?
Well, when I do my music there’s always that improvisational—I never have my music written, but when I play with other people and the music is more set, it is a different mentality to take. It’s more precision based, when you play improvised music it’s more about trying to capturing the moment of what’s happening. It’s more like you’re searching, for something, you’re trying to reach out and grab something. When you’re playing music that’s more set, it’s more about ‘execute this’ and focusing in and executing. It’s a bit of a difference in the mindset at least when I’m trying to play classical music or something like that. In improv I’m trying to catch the moment and represent it in sound. It’s more like ‘this is the moment’ and just execute it. You’re still tapping into your spirit and soul, but in different ways.
I wanted to jump back to something you said just a second ago, about classical music. “Clair De Lune” is one of my favorite tracks on the album. What made you cover Debussy for The Epic?
I played with one of my great mentors, Gerald Wilson; he was one of my favorite composers in high school, and when I went to UCLA he was a professor there, he asked me to join his orchestra, his big band. I ended up finding out in doing that that he lived right around the corner from my mother’s house where I grew up. I didn’t know him when I was younger, but he said he used to hear me practicing and we became friends. So I used to go over to his house and just work on music and listen to music and he would talk to me about music. He would tell me a lot about how soulful the French composers were, the romantic era of French composers were, he was always talking about how soulful they were. He actually did an arrangement of “Clair De Lune” himself. So when I was looking at “Clair De Lune” I was like ‘oh man, this sounds like a bubblebath love song!’ so I was trying to make it into something like that. I was working with it, and it naturally just kind of fell into it. And I had this idea to make it feel almost like the moon was coming down to earth and dancing with different characters.
The band recorded what they wanted to do, and they were very open to what they wanted to do. Then, I wrote the string and choir arrangements around that. So that song, when I was listening to the solos and stuff, it felt like a dance. I was trying to create that character of the moon, I looked at Ryan Porter like a poet, Miles was like the regular guy, so I was trying to create that feeling.
I also loved “Leroy and Lanisha,” it had a similar calm energy to it. For some reason it reminded me of a lullaby. Like, I had never heard it before, but it felt like I had, like someone had sang it to me, or something.
That was my homage to Charlie Brown, it was my version of “Linus and Lucy.”
That makes sense! When I was listening to it, it reminded me of the books my mom read to me when I was a kid, it felt very nostalgic.
Yeah that’s exactly what that was. I always loved Charlie Brown growing up—Vince Guaraldi, you know? I was listening to that and I started playing around with that melody.
I also wanted to ask about “Cherokee,” it’s such a sweet song, but the lyrics are about a “brave Indian warrior,” how’d you balance that?
“Cherokee” was one of those songs I heard growing up, with my dad I heard Charlie Parker’s version, it was a recording he had and you could hear all these older guys and their approach was so soulful and powerful. And it was like “Clair De Lune,” it felt like a love song. We never play it that way, we play it like it’s really aggressive and that’s cool, but I’ve had fun playing that way myself. But I was like ‘aw man people really gives the feeling of it’ this guy who falls in love with this woman—and the mix of culture—I tried to capture that feeling.
When you were talking about the dream influencing the track flow, I noticed that the first disc The Plan starts out with a lot of energy on “Change of the Guard” and “Isabelle,” but it closes with “The Rhythm Changes,” which is much more tranquil and has a vocalist on it. It feels like a big shift.
So the track listing and even the names of the albums have a relationship with the dream and to real life, they’re interrelated. The reason why I ended it with “The Rhythm Changes” and why “The Rhythm Changes” feels like a shift is because the album The Plan, in the story, is about these young guys who go to challenge this guard at the top of the gate who’s waiting for these young guys to come and challenge him. So they go up to the top of the mountain to challenge the guard, and he’s not there. To me, and I’m just interpreting, it feels like—that happens a lot of times with musicians. When we were growing up, you’d have these plans, like these grand plans. As a jazz musician I was practicing—eight—nine—10 hours a day, I was really focused and I had these plans to take jazz and take music to help change the world—you know—bring life back to culture and all these things. What happens a lot of times in life is that you plan for one thing, but then something else happens. For me, I graduated from high school and had all these great plans in this jazz band with all these guys I grew up with who were all amazing musicians, but the first gig I ended up being on was the flute. Wasn’t really my plan, but it was like the rhythm changing on me.
So the same thing happens in the story. These guys go to the top of this mountain and the guard isn’t there and that leads them to going out into the world and having all these other kinds of adventures. And that’s “The Rhythm Changes.” It changes like there because it was like, almost like you’re building up to this moment that—and especially in the lives of musicians—doesn’t really happen that way. We build up to this moment and something else happens and you have to adjust and switch and change. So that’s why I put that song there. The song is more about we get so hung up on titles and names and what something is called and if it’s new or if it’s old, but reality is you can’t stop that. The rhythm is going to change, music is going to change, the melodies are going to change, life is going to change.
Are you going to find a director to make this into a movie?
I’m actually working on writing it out—I have it written out, but it’s just scribbles—like I just need to wake up and write it down. I’m actually really composing it into something, possibly I’ll make it into a graphic novel or something.
I was relistening to Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead! and I’ve always thought that’s a jazz album, and you’re on his label and you’ve made a very different jazz album. And Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is also a jazz album in a lot of ways; they’re all sort of a fascinating mutation on the genre.
I’ve never taken the names that we put on music terribly seriously. The music—it is what it is. It’s like that quote from Shakespeare, the rose would still be a rose by any other name. The music is the same thing. But if you’re going to talk about categorization of music, jazz is such a huge category. It’s over a hundred years old, there’s so much music and it’s so wide. Either it should be chopped up into smaller pieces or it’s even wider than we think it is. If you say Jelly roll Morton and John Coltrane are both jazz then how you can say John Coltrane and James Brown are not jazz? Then if John Coltrane and James Brown are jazz then James Brown and Snoop are jazz. Then Snoop and Kendrick Lamar are jazz. That term is so big that you can use it for most American music. I mean—rock n’ roll—Jimi Hendrix is my jazz—why not? Or if it’s not jazz, then why is John Coltrane jazz? It’s a really ambiguous thing. I don’t take it that seriously, it’s just a tool to help you organize music. No two musicians are the same, no two songs are the same, no two solos are the same; even within one song, you can change the definition of what it is.
Jazz has gotten such a bad rap in popular culture—no one likes it, people don’t dig it—but to me, they like what they like. There’s so much music, to say that you don’t like jazz, man that’s a lot of music. There’s jazz I don’t like, I can’t say I like everything that’s in the jazz idiom. And the same thing in hip-hop, you say “oh I don’t like jazz, I like hip-hop,” well do you love everything in hip-hop? Is Vanilla Ice your favorite record (laughs)? That notion of the importance of the term always tripped me out a little bit. Music is the music and if you call it something else now all of a sudden it’s a big deal that people are calling Kendrick Lamar’s album jazz. But Tribe Called Quest could have been called jazz. So much of hip-hop—you can call it jazz if you want to, but you don’t call it jazz, you call it something else. I don’t know if I answered your question.
Yeah, you’re just proving my theory that genre labels are bullshit.
They shouldn’t take it so seriously. Take a category for what it is: it’s a tool you use to help organize music. It’s not something to protect. When people say ‘we have to protect the lineage of jazz,’ how can you even do that? It’s not even possible. The category is like an imaginary house, the music doesn’t live there, the music lives on its own. You can’t protect it. You can just make music, that’s all you can do. The term? Who cares about the term? It’s not even a good word! It’s kind of a derogatory term, what are you protecting?
I remember someone interviewing Radiohead years ago about “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” and they said it wasn’t their song, they were just the biological catalysts. Considering the work that went into The Epic do you feel that way about the music?
Musicians—we try to take the credit, but music is a constant, it just comes through us. It doesn’t really come out of us. I’ve always felt like the best music I make is out of my control. The best solos I ever take are when I let go of my intentions of what I want something to be and just let it be what it is. Sometimes, I was trying to make certain things happen in the studio, but if I just let it be—most of these songs came from those days. Most of these are one take versions of the songs I didn’t try so hard to push it this way or that way, I just let it be what it is. That is an important aspect of music: you have to understand that, as a musician, you can’t force it. You have to let it be what it is or search out what it is. If you exert energy it should be in search, not in force. You can’t really force music, you have to just flow with it. It’s almost like water: you can’t really force it to do anything. You can set certain parameters, then you just have to let it be.