Kamasi Washington, to ‘Heaven and Earth,’ Aspen and beyond
The Aspen Times
IF YOU GO …
Who: Kamasi Washington
When: Thursday, Oct. 25, 9 p.m.
Where: Belly Up Aspen
How much: $38-$85
Tickets: Belly Up box office; bellyupaspen.com
Kamasi Washington’s uncompromising and ambitious sound has made him the biggest thing in jazz in a generation and improbably pushed the form back into the pop music landscape.
The saxophonist, composer and bandleader stepped boldly onto the international stage in 2015 playing sax and arranging instrumentals on Kendrick Lamar’s watershed “To Pimp a Butterfly” and then with his own aptly named triple album “The Epic.”
Washington’s multi-textured, maximalist creations marry jazz improvisation with the spirit of hip-hop and R&B, film scores and classical tradition and big ideas.
His “Heaven and Earth,” released in June, is a double-disc split between songs about the corporeal world and the spiritual — a loose concept album about the mind-body-spirit ideal (around here, it’s branded “the Aspen Idea”).
Washington’s North American tour comes to Belly Up Aspen on Thursday, the Ogden Theater in Denver on Friday and the Boulder Theater on Saturday.
His records sound like they’re made with a cast of thousands — and they do include full 32-piece orchestras, 20-voice choirs and a 10-player band with a double rhythm section — but his touring outfit is slim by comparison. He’s playing with a seven-piece outfit — trombone, vocals, keyboard, bass and two drummers — that reinterprets his dense and meticulous works for the stage.
His live shows have been rapturously received in recent years and given younger generations a jazz hero of their own. Here in Aspen, his show promises to be the high point of the fall cultural calendar.
“I try to create something new every night,” Washington, 37, said from Los Angeles during a recent tour break. “I try to approach the songs from a different place. Music is alive. And the record is a snapshot of a moment in time. Each show is an opportunity to create a new moment, a new version. That’s what I’m going for.”
Jazz is most often shunted off to niche clubs and festivals. Go to a jazz show and you expect to dress up and sit down. It rarely these days finds a place in the venues where Washington has planted a flag.
Washington started gigging around Los Angeles as a teenager and never dreamt of fame or big crowds or selling records. He fantasized, simply, about the music. There was a creative purity in his ambitions.
“My dreams were more like, ‘Man, one day I’m going to make something beautiful, like these records that I love so much,’” he said, adding with a laugh: “When I was younger I used to literally sit around imagining playing really good solos.”
The teenage Washington would dream of making a melody as indelible as the finale of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, he recalled.
But his talent soon exposed him to the pop music world, which reshaped his ideas about live performance and audience.
The first major tour he played was with Snoop Dogg’s backing band after Washington’s freshman year at UCLA. For a kid from Los Angeles, performing with the Long Beach hip-hop icon — and playing video games with him on the road — was mind-blowing.
“My first time out with Snoop, I was backstage playing Madden with him and I’d be like, ‘Wow, this is crazy,’” he recalled.
Washington and the crew of Los Angeles musicians who he came up with — artists like multi-instrumentalist Terrace Martin, bassist Thundercat and pianist Cameron Graves, who many of us heard for the first time through “The Epic” and “To Pimp a Butterfly” — had been doing shows with figures like Snoop, Chaka Khan and Lauryn Hill on big tours and in major venues. When they started focusing on their own music, they wanted to share it in those kinds of clubs with young people and crowded dance floors — not only to niche jazzheads.
“The idea that the world had of what jazz is — that was blocking us from getting to people,” Washington recalled. “There were so many doors that were closed. People looked at you and said, ‘Oh, you play jazz. You can’t go to any of these places.’”
After supporting pop acts on the road — sometimes playing to festival crowds of 60,000 and up — Washington and company aimed at pop venues along with jazz-centric spots and coffee houses.
“We’d be hyped to be in this club where there are more people in the band than in the audience,” he recalled. “We were young — 18, 19 — and we started taking that music to places that weren’t considered jazz clubs and we started to see how people really loved the music. They didn’t know what it was. Their notion of ‘jazz’ was so off. They’d see us playing and they’d ask, ‘What’s that called?’ We’d say, ‘That’s just jazz.’ We were seeing that happen in L.A. So the next step was, ‘OK, we can get the music out to people in L.A., now how do we get it out of L.A.?’”
Washington himself had fallen in love with jazz through hip-hop, by tracking down the sources of samples in rap songs with the help of his musician father. He knew that the people who went to hip-hop shows could fall for jazz, too, if they were able to hear it.
“I was like, ‘Well, I’ve played these places with other people, so much of my music comes from jazz and I can see people appreciating that, so it’s hard for me to believe,’” he said. “I can’t believe that these people will be unmoved by that. So, it became a mission of ours to dispel the myth that somehow people don’t like jazz. It’s not true. … So many people missed out on so much great music because of that notion. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
“The Epic” was born out of a monthlong studio session in 2011 in Echo Park that’s become the stuff of legend. Washington and his cohort pooled money to rent the space and they recorded day and night, playing on one another’s songs in a creative spree of untethered artistic freedom. The 17 tracks on “The Epic” — which runs nearly three mesmerizing hours — were pared down from 40-plus compositions that Washington oversaw, a distillation of his vision of jazz that encompassed his broad influences.
“I knew, if nothing else, I had to make an album of this sound that we were doing,” he said. “So when we came together, the reality is that I knew this, we hadn’t spoken it, but I knew that all these guys I’d grown up with had the same feeling: that they were special.”
He’d been studying Vincent Van Gogh’s life and believed that, like Van Gogh, he might create something that wouldn’t be appreciated in his time. But he was committed to making it regardless. He poured his life savings into making “The Epic” to document the expansive sound that he’d begun perfecting.
“That’s been my philosophy of music, that you put everything you can into it and that’s really all you can do,” he said. “Just making it and having it exist and be beautiful, that’s the real gift. Everything else is icing, but that’s the cake: to make something beautiful.”
After “The Epic,” Washington was headlining the kinds of massive pop festivals that just a few years ago seemed unattainable for a progressive sax player. His records are monumental statements with wild and free improvisational passages nesting on soaring strings and choral arrangements — layer upon mosaic layer of sound. It’s cinematic and, yes, epic in scope.
Washington’s compositions envelop a wide swath of culture. They’re as apt to nod at kung-fu movies or video games as they are to make allusions to Debussy or Stravinsky. Washington’s day-to-day cultural diet is equally as omnivorous. These days, Washington said, he’s been playing the video game “Street Fighter,” watching the manga series “Naruto” and listening to a lot of classical favorites as he writes a new piece for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, while he’s also rediscovered — through a recent tour stop in Bali — his love for Gamelan music.
“I’m always all over the place,” he said, noting that he also recently read and loved the young-adult novel “The Hate U Give” and watched and loved its new film adaptation.
Washington’s arrival on the international music scene and his rapid ascension to jazz god status has coincided with and been linked to the Black Lives Matter movement. His work is steeped in black pride and the long tradition of music as a weapon in the fight for civil rights. Last week, Washington released a video for “Hub-Tones” — his reworking of the 1962 Freddie Hubbard standard, set to African rhythms — honoring the Pan-African tradition. He says the song and video “is me trying to connect my ancestors via music.” “The Epic” included samples of Malcolm X. His EP “Harmony of Difference,” written for the Whitney Biennial last year, celebrates multiculturalism and aims to beat back the nativist tides taking hold in the U.S. On “Fists of Fury,” a sweeping reimagining of the theme to the Bruce Lee film “Fist of Fury” that opens “Heaven and Earth,” vocalists Patrice Quinn and Dwight Trible declare “Our time as victims is over/We will no longer ask for justice/Instead, we will take our retribution.”
In terms of social impact, Washington sees his role as personal.
“What I can do as an artist is share my experience and share my thoughts,” he said. “I don’t know what impact it has. All I can do is say, ‘These are my feelings’ and put them into the songs. It’s not just social justice or politics — it’s life. All that I am, I try to put into the music.”