Kamasi Washington, Contemporary Jazz Titan, Discusses Harmony and Human Connections | Music

Kamasi Washington, Contemporary Jazz Titan, Discusses Harmony and Human Connections


  • Photo by Jamie James Medina
Kamasi Washington is one of those rare musicians who has managed to excite both the most deeply invested jazz enthusiasts and a broader popular audience who may not be as familiar with jazz.

Based in Los Angeles, the saxophonist and composer has worked on wide-ranging projects with hip-hop artists like Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Run the Jewels, rock acts like The Twilight Singers and Ryan Adams, and jazz artists Phil Ranelin and Harvey Mason.

Washington's eclectic work earned him a reputation within the music industry as a diligent and creative force, but his 2015 album The Epic elevated him to the rare status of a contemporary jazz great. Recorded for the Whitney Biennial, this year’s Harmony of Difference is his follow-up EP to the much-lauded album. Although shorter in length, it is not shorter in musical depth and complexity, braiding together disparate themes into a virtuosic appeal for diversity and togetherness.

We spoke to Washington by phone ahead of his Saturday night performance with Moonchild at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh. Tickets to the show, which starts at 7:30 p.m., are still available here.

INDY WEEK: You've called L.A. "the greatest city for music right now" and certainly you, Kendrick, and Flying Lotus make a compelling case for that. Tell me a little more about what it was like to grow up there and come of age as a musician in Los Angeles.

KAMASI WASHINGTON: It was definitely like a really good musical community. I grew up in an area called Leimert Park and there was a lot of music, a lot of art, and a lot of support for young musicians. You just felt like the community was rooting for you. It felt like every aspect of the music industry was open to you, if you're a jazz musician, you can go play gospel or you can play funk in a band. Jazz, classical, hip-hop—they were all wrapped into one. There was a lot of cross-pollination. Probably because our music scene in Los Angeles was, for so long, so self-contained, the city was a little microcosm of music.

You've spoken before about how jazz can be seen as a limiting category, because the work that jazz does is not work as a genre, but as a way of approaching music. How do you characterize the state of jazz today given that you have an expansive idea of what jazz is and does in the world?

Jazz represents the self-expression that happens in the moment. The reality is, at this point in history, all the musical devices are being shared by all the different styles—the rhythm, the chords, the instrumentation. You find those things across the board. But I think what jazz brings and what most people are drawn towards is that feeling of freedom it has.

 You came off the wildly successful album 'The Epic' and then you had a world tour and you were playing music festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo. How did you begin to approach your next project 'The Harmony of Difference'?

I originally intended for Harmony of Difference to be for the Whitney Museum Biennial. I didn't intend to release it at first. The album was an exhibit at first. It had paintings that my sister did and a film that A.G. Rojas directed. As we were finishing it, guys from the Young Turks really just put the thought in my head that it was something that was bigger than that and it should exist beyond being in the Whitney and it should reach more than the people who could make it to New York during that exhibit. And that's when I decided to put it out.

But it really was like I was just trying to create something that would be a counter-balance to all the negative energy that was being pushed towards diversity. There was so much talk of separatism. I felt like people were missing out on the blessing that our diversity really is in this country.

How did the process of making this record feel different? Collaboration has been so key to so much of your work.

It was great. I was not only collaborating with different musicians, but collaborating across different media. I was traveling and touring at the same time that I was doing Harmony of Difference, so it happened pretty quickly. When I had the time to dive into it, I had to dive into it headfirst and really go for it, because I had a deadline for the museum. It was an interesting process. I had never really collaborated like that with artists of different media, so it broadened the creativity.

Who inspires and influences you among people working today?

Musically, definitely people like Kendrick, Thundercat, Christian Scott. A lot of my inspiration comes from interacting with ordinary people. Up in L.A., not too long ago, one of my old teachers started a new band of young students. Seeing them play really inspired me. It's really the ordinary things that pull the music out of me.

We live during such an exciting renaissance for Black art across all media. What do you hope your music does in the world during this moment?

The most powerful component the music has is the ability to bring people together. When I do a lot of my shows, I see so many different people from different walks of life coming together and having a moment together. As we learn more about one another, we start to care more about one another. And as that happens, I think the world starts to move in a different direction. So I hope my music does that. I hope it brings people together. Sound is the last stance of our togetherness.

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