Kamasi Washington exists on the cutting edge of jazz. He is the avant-garde, who, along with a group of collaborators, is setting the tone in the jazz world. Like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, Washington’s music transcends what came before, pushing the genre’s needle forward.
I was fortunate to speak with the Grammy-nominated saxophonist and Los Angeles native recently ahead of his residency at City Winery in Boston. Washington is playing four shows over three nights beginning Tuesday, May 9. Tickets are available here.
A three-time veteran of the Newport Jazz Festival, Washington is also headed back to Newport this summer in a special collaboration with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. That set will undoubtedly be a festival highlight this August.
“It’s always amazing,” he said of Newport. “We’ve played three times; it’s such an iconic festival – some of my favorite records are recorded live at Newport. It’s a surreal feeling to play those stages.”
Playing with a Dead cover band will be a unique experience for Washington. “It’ll be our first time playing together, it’s gonna be fun. The festival actually made that connection between us – I’m obviously a big fan, and I love playing that music.”
How is playing a festival different than playing a traditional gig?
“The biggest difference between a festival and my own show is the amount of time we have to set up and play,” said Washington. Without the benefit of a complete soundcheck, “for a festival, sometimes you just got to stand up there and play. You have the mindset of ‘just go.’ I always try to make the music sound unique and special no matter where we are. Once we’re on the stage, the music takes over, no matter where we are,” he added.
In 2015, Washington released his first major album, The Epic, an ambitious ride through the jazz genre that ended up on numerous end-of-the-year “Top 10” lists. That same year, he was featured on Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed album To Pimp a Butterfly. I asked him about the role of jazz in hip-hop and other genres.
“Jazz has been a part of hip-hop since its inception, the two forms have a lot in common. So many artists that make hip-hop music have a great love for jazz and are attached to jazz,” he said. “Kendrick Lamar opened the door for the musicians on his records to express themselves without limitations. He had a lot of jazz musicians working with him – the jazz elements in that record just came to the forefront.”
“People like Dre, Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Nas, and so many hip hop artists have used jazz. Kendrick really let the musicians do whatever we wanted to do; he wanted us to add the fullness of our expression to the music and then he took that and turned it into something that allowed him to express himself to the fullest. It created a very beautiful, very lush, very full piece of art, and it definitely had a lot of jazz, not just me but people like Terrance Martin, Thundercat, Robert Glasper, and other musicians,” said Washington.
Washington’s last major release reached a wide audience. He wrote and recorded the soundtrack for the Grammy Award-nominated Michelle Obama documentary “Becoming.” Fans can look forward to a new album soon; “it’s going to be a bit of a different thing for me,” he noted.
He’s also producing an album with Ami Taf Ra, a Moroccan musician and his partner who is touring with Washington and will be part of his set in Boston. “Her music is steeped in North African traditions along with more classic Arabic music. We met, and we found a very cool synergy between her musical expression and mine.”
The beauty of jazz and the nature of the genre is uncertainty. I asked Washington the about meaning of jazz, and its larger purpose in the world today. “Music is definitely meant to express the full range of all emotion – joy, happiness, sadness, pain; it can express all those things. The main thing with jazz is allowing it to be a free form of expression.”
Click here for more information and tickets to the show.