Kamasi Washington, the 37-year-old saxophone colossus who's thundered into America's jazz consciousness with three records in three years, doesn't have much free time these days. Instead, his days are being consumed by a relentless touring schedule in support of the double album he released this year, Heaven and Earth, an ethereal roller coaster that takes listeners from funk grooves to gospel choirs to dissonant sax solos. His days are also consumed by collaborations with artists such as Florence + the Machine and videographer Jenn Nkiru, the latter of whom just released a music video for Washington's song “Hub-Tones” that pairs the music with pan-African iconography. And finally, his days are filled with the mundane chores associated with being a suddenly very successful musician: press phone calls.
On Friday, October 12, it was Westword calling. We caught Washington during a brief respite in his home town, Los Angeles, just after he'd returned from New York and was getting ready to go to Seattle. Washington will be in Colorado later this month to play two shows on the Front Range: on October 26 at the Ogden Theatre and October 27 at the Boulder Theater. Our conversation covered such topics as the saxophonist's decision to start a solo career, dealing with fame, playing Street Fighter and an unexpected encounter with Brad Pitt.
Westword: Kamasi, I've heard you mention a moment in 2015, before you came out with your debut album, The Epic, when you were mostly supporting other artists — like playing a role on Kendrick Lamar's 'To Pimp a Butterfly' — and you decided to transition and set forth as a solo artist. Can you take me more into that moment? What was going through your mind, and what had held you back from making that transition earlier?
Kamasi Washington: There's a fear factor of leaving what you have to go for something else. But for me, it's something I knew I needed to do. It was just a timing issue. When Flying Lotus came to me with an opportunity to put a record out on his label, Brainfeeder, that felt like the crack in the wall, like, 'Wow, I should plow straight forward. I think we can break out.' But at the same time, I also feel like my journey went the way it was supposed to go. With all those years playing for other people, I really developed my own style within that.
Right. Even when you were in your early twenties, you toured with Snoop Dogg, who was a vanguard of a different, older L.A. scene. So it seems you were right there in L.A. during this incubatory period between Snoop's era and when Flying Lotus and Thundercat and Kendrick Lamar started blowing up.
Yeah, there were all these amazing artists around that had their own sound. And we all knew they were special. I remember hearing about Kendrick in, like, 2005 or something like that, that this dude was going to change hip-hop. Thundercat has been dope since he was in high school. It was either going to be that these artists were going to find an opportunity to do something special, or they wouldn't get an opportunity, and that would've been a tragedy. The fact of the matter is that there are lots of musicians in L.A. that never got an opportunity that were great musicians. And we were all kind of worried about that — that there was a chance that you could be great, great, great, and not just get a shot and fail, but just not even get a shot.
It seems you're making the most of your shot. You're even lauded as being the architect of a West Coast jazz revival — or being behind a greater cultural resurgence in jazz — and I'm wondering: Coming from a place where, at a national level, you were undiscovered just three years ago, how have you handled that personally, emotionally – suddenly shooting up into this vaunted status? Has that been weird among old friends?
You know, it's weird. It feels a little surreal sometimes — and sometimes I'm oblivious to it. I tend not to think too much about it until I'm home and hanging with people I've been with for my whole life, and they say, "Wow, this must be crazy!" And then you go, "Uh, yeah, I guess it is kind of crazy." But for me, I look at it like my whole life I wanted to create music and have the opportunity to make beautiful things, and now I have that opportunity. So my focus is more on creating.
I was asking because I recently listened to this interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the writer was talking about how there are two sides of the fame coin. In one respect, he didn't like all the attention he was suddenly getting, and became so uncomfortable by it that he moved to Paris. But on the other hand, he was like, it's pretty cool getting to meet people like President Obama. So I was wondering, in the musical world, when you suddenly get this huge status, what has that meant for you? Has it taken away any things you had before?
My time is so much more limited now. I used to be a very active gigging musician, always playing with someone different, and that's a certain kind of lifestyle. Now, most of the things I do outside of my own projects are pre-meditated, like, I'm going to take time out from what I'm doing rather than just having my phone ringing and you don't know what's coming up next.
What are the things that you purposely set aside time for?
Definitely all my friends' projects. People like Brandon Coleman, who just had a really cool album come out. And working with Florence + the Machine — I always really enjoyed her music, and when she asked me to do something with her, I made room to do that.
It shows how much music is your world that even the spare time you set aside has a music focus! You don't ever, like, watch a movie or drink beer with friends?
[Laughs.] No, no, I have guilty pleasures also, like playing Street Fighter. That's important, too. Because I have time periods in my life when I don't really get to do those things. But I have to do that, too, because it's part of my psyche and makes me who I am. I'm not such a single-minded person.
Returning to an earlier question, with your recent success, have there also been opportunities that have cropped up that you couldn't have imagined before? What's taken you by surprise?
I don't know — I have a pretty vivid imagination [laughs]. Let's see, we did a big show at the Barclays Center in New York, and stuff like that I couldn't have seen. And stuff like....at a friend's party, I met Brad Pitt and he told me how he got into the music. That was a trip. You just don't expect that to happen.
So you were you like, “Oh cool — thanks, Brad Pitt.”
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Yeah, something like that [laughs].
Switching gears here, you've been talking a lot about the messaging behind the music in "Heaven and Earth," and in particular the lead song, “Fists of Fury.” I've heard you say a couple of times that one of the things you're trying to communicate is that we shouldn't wait for justice but rather should go out and enact change and become the masters of our own fate. I'm wondering what that means in action — what are you envisioning people actually doing?
I think it's just people doing what they can do. There's not just one way of doing it. Some people are good at organizing big rallies and marches, and that's what they should do. But for someone else, it may be that you're good at teaching baseball. We can all pinpoint places where it's like, "I, myself, can affect that area, that place, those people, that thing. I can do that." It's different for every person. The person that can maybe rally a million people to march in Washington may not have any means of affecting the psyche and mentality of your next-door neighbor — something that you can affect. Sometimes we think the only people that matter, the only movers that matter, are the big shiny ones that are, like, way up in the sky. But that doesn't work if you don't have the masses doing millions of small things to go along with that. That's one thing that I feel like is missing, those small things. And you don't need power or money or any type of political pull to make a difference. I think that if we had lots and lots and lots of people doing that, it'd be bigger and more effective than having someone who can organize a million people to march somewhere.