KA­MASI WASH­ING­TON

Mojo (UK) - - Contents -

South Cen­tral LA’s street fighter-turned-sax­o­phone colos­sus is bring­ing jazz into the 21st cen­tury, on a cos­mic scale. Snoop and Ken­drick are along for the ride.

OUT­SIDE A FANCY ITAL­IAN RESTAU­RANT IN NORTH LON­DON, the world has stopped. Af­ter spot­ting Ka­masi Wash­ing­ton at one of his ta­bles, the man­ager has asked if the 37-year-old jazz sax­o­phon­ist might pose for pic­tures. A small crowd gath­ers, some from recognition, oth­ers sim­ply to check out this big, hand­some African-Amer­i­can, clad in a mus­tard-and-cream dashiki with heavy am­ber and turquoise neck­lace, hold­ing a hand-carved lion-han­dle walk­ing stick, and star­ing out over High­bury Cor­ner round­about. It’s a pow­er­ful look, one that made its first ap­pear­ance on the cover of Wash­ing­ton’s triple-disc 2015 de­but stu­dio LP, The Epic, which saw the mu­si­cian, fa­ther’s sax­o­phone in hand, sport­ing a black dashiki – his first, bought from a Sene­galese tai­lor called Bob in down­town In­gle­wood – in front of a sci-fi spacescape. The Epic was praised as an ex­pan­sive re­state­ment of vi­sion­ary ce­les­tial jazz. Wash­ing­ton had pre­vi­ously played with Raphael Saadiq, Erykah Badu and Fly­ing Lo­tus, and had re­cently scored strings for Ken­drick La­mar’s To Pimp A But­ter­fly, but he was soon be­ing

com­pared to such sax vi­sion­ar­ies as John Coltrane and Pharoah San­ders, and be­ing anointed by African-Amer­i­can writer Greg Tate, as “the jazz voice of Black Lives Mat­ter”. Now, he has writ­ten a se­quel, Heaven And Earth, an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal two-disc jour­ney into his own past and fu­ture that moves from max­i­mal­ist cos­mic gospel to tight, modal post­bop, from cin­e­matic key­board freak-outs to wild har­monic choirs; a ral­ly­ing bat­tle-cry of 21st cen­tury mul­ti­cul­tural as­tro-spir­i­tu­al­ism, aimed at the head, heart, and soul of mod­ern Amer­ica. “We’re fight­ing against the no­tion that it’s OK to kill some­one be­cause you feel threat­ened by how they look,” ex­plains Wash­ing­ton, in deep, danc­ing, scholastic tones. “If you’re a big dark-skinned black man, you’re taught ver y early on to be care­ful, be­cause you’re seen as a threat. Our mu­sic rep­re­sents that fear – that my life is not as valu­able as yours – but it’s about lov­ing life too, and the pos­si­bil­ity of what you can be. Be­fore I started wear­ing these African clothes, peo­ple would as­sume I was a threat, that it was OK to be vi­o­lent to­ward me. That’s a re­al­ity I’ve lived with my whole life.” Im­promptu High­bury Cor­ner photo-shoot over, the man­ager says he might put Ka­masi’s photo in the restau­rant win­dow. “Yeah!” says Wash­ing­ton, laugh­ing. “‘Do not take che­ques from this man! Ask for pay­ment first’.”

’VE LIVED MY WHOLE LIFE IN SOUTH CEN­TRAL LA,” says Ka­masi Wash­ing­ton, “but that first house I grew up in, on 74th and Figueroa, was a pretty dan­ger­ous place to be. Deep in the hood. We weren’t even al­lowed out on the side­walk.” We’re sit­ting in a high-win­dowed suite of a Lon­don ho­tel, look­ing out over Re­gent’s Park and mar­vel­ling at how close Ka­masi Wash­ing­ton came to the gang­banger life­style. Wash­ing­ton’s par­ents di­vorced when he was three years old, but the in­flu­ence of his fa­ther, Rickey, a pro­fes­sional jazz mu­si­cian, and his chem­istry teacher mother kept him away from the Bloods and the Crips, if not N.W.A. “I kept my N.W.A tapes se­cret,” he says. “If my par­ents found out they’d have taken them away. But N.W.A was the first time I felt any­one was talk­ing about where I came from.” Like the other six Wash­ing­ton chil­dren, Ka­masi learnt an in­stru­ment from an early age, start­ing on drums at three, be­fore grad­u­at­ing to pi­ano then clar­inet, which he’d take to school, play­ing Boyz II Men and Jodeci songs for his fel­low pupils. Some kids car­ried guns, and Wash­ing­ton was still drawn to gang cul­ture. Then, a panAfrican group called Ujima vis­ited Wash­ing­ton’s school, hand­ing out copies of Mal­colm X’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy; read­ing it, Wash­ing­ton re­alised he could be a force for bet­ter­ment. And around the same time, his older cousin, La­mar, gave Wash­ing­ton an Art Blakey & The Jazz Mes­sen­gers mix­tape. “I’d grown up around jazz,” says Wash­ing­ton. “My dad would play me heavy John Coltrane, like As­cen­sion. But this was dif­fer­ent. My cousin – way cooler than me – was reach­ing out, ask­ing me to learn these songs so we could play them to­gether. Se­condly, Art Blakey’s style fit that hard­core hip-hop vibe. It spoke to me.” Strug­gling to repli­cate Wayne Shorter’s pro­tean sax sound on clar­inet, Wash­ing­ton asked his dad if he could switch in­stru­ments. Rickey set him a test: learn Shorter’s Sleep­ing Dancer Sleep On on clar­inet, and sing him a Char­lie Parker song. “I sang him Now’s The Time,” says Wash­ing­ton. “He was like, ‘OK, you se­ri­ous’. Two days later I was play­ing in my un­cle’s church band, for the first time play­ing mu­sic for peo­ple. It fast-for­warded my devel­op­ment.” Such life-stages are ref­er­enced in Heaven And Earth’s odyssey of re­al­i­sa­tion and dis­cov­ery. Recorded across three LA stu­dios, with a twin-rhythm sec­tion 13-piece band, plus 26-piece or­ches­tra and 13-piece choir, the dou­ble al­bum is dra­matic in am­bi­tion and oper­atic in scope, ref­er­enc­ing both Ka­masi’s real life (Earth), his imag­ined, po­ten­tial life (Heaven) and the way the two in­ter­twine. “With each of us, our re­al­ity is so much based on our imag­i­na­tion,” ex­plains Wash­ing­ton. “The hard part is be­liev­ing your lit­tle pocket in the world can be what you want it to be, that no one can af­fect your whole world un­less you give them your power.” That op­ti­mistic phi­los­o­phy is par­tic­u­larly em­bod­ied in one of Heaven’s stand-out tracks, Street Fighter Mas, where Ka­masi draws on a mis­spent youth, play­ing Street Fighter with lo­cal gang­bangers, in ser­vice of a joy­ous cin­e­matic theme song for kids like him­self who tri­umphed in are­nas many might dis­miss as ‘low cul­ture’. “I was re­ally good at Street Fighter,” he ex­plains, “and I was this lit­tle kid play­ing with these scary gang­ster killer dudes at the lo­cal liquor store, but I felt safe. I re­alised no one is all bad or all good. A pretty im­por­tant les­son to learn from Street Fighter.” At 13, Wash­ing­ton’s street-cor­ner ed­u­ca­tion ended when he grad­u­ated to the pres­ti­gious Hamil­ton Mu­sic Academy in Cas­tle Heights, where he met young pi­ano prodigy, Cameron Graves. “Ka­masi was play­ing first tenor, next to me on pi­ano,” says Graves. “We were both into Coltrane, so af­ter class we’d hang out in the band room, jam­ming a lit­tle trio. It started from there.” En­ter In­gle­wood mu­sic ed­u­ca­tor Reg­gie An­drews. Con­cerned that Hamil­ton grad­u­ates like Wash­ing­ton and Graves had cre­ated a brain drain in South Cen­tral, An­drews had started up the Mul­tiS­chool Jazz Band, al­low­ing young lo­cal mu­si­cians to play to­gether. An­drews in­vited Wash­ing­ton; Wash­ing­ton in­vited Graves. “Sud­denly I’m see­ing kids I’d grown up with, like Ron­ald and Stephen Bruner,” says Wash­ing­ton. “Kin­dred spir­its, but these kids were… goood. At Hamil­ton I’d been front of the pack, into Stravin­sky, Prokofiev, Ravel, [but] at Multi-School Jazz Band ev­ery­one was way ahead of me. They had pro­fes­sional gigs. They sounded like The Jazz Mes­sen­gers!” “Ka­masi uni­fied us,” says Ron­ald Bruner Jr. “I was the crazy per­son, Stephen was the su­per-artis­tic, quiet per­son, Cameron the su­per-fo­cused per­son, and Ka­masi, ev­ery time he got on each one of us, we’d feel com­fort­able in our skin, no mat­ter how messed

up we were. Ka­masi has al­ways been an ad­vo­cate for his peo­ple be­ing good peo­ple. His mu­sic and writ­ing is very en­com­pass­ing, just like his hug.” The Multi-School Jazz Band started play­ing at Leimert Park, a fo­cus of the Black Arts move­ment and LA jazz nu­cleus since 1965’s Watts ri­ots. “We started to see the con­nec­tions and the his­tory,” says Wash­ing­ton. “It gave me a re­al­ity check.” An­other re­al­ity check came in 1997 when the Multi-School Jazz Band played the Playboy Jazz Fes­ti­val at the Hol­ly­wood Bowl, in front of 10,000 peo­ple. Wash­ing­ton, tapped for a solo, hadn’t pre­pared. “I didn’t sound good,” he says. “It just ate at me.” De­ter­mined it wouldn’t hap­pen again, he be­gan prac­tis­ing, hard; on his own, with Cameron Graves and the Bruners at Graves’ fa­ther’s house in In­gle­wood, and at a cof­fee shop off Cren­shaw called Dough­boy Dozens, play­ing hard­core R&B with comedian/poet, Bran­don Bowlin. It paid off. In 1999, Wash­ing­ton, Graves and the Bruners en­tered LA’s John Coltrane Mu­sic Com­pe­ti­tion. “It was a com­pe­ti­tion for grown-ups,” ex­plains Graves, “and we won it! As kids! Some writer called us ‘young jazz giants’. We took it.” Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from col­lege, Wash­ing­ton en­rolled at UCLA’s Depart­ment of Eth­no­mu­si­col­ogy, where he met Kenny Bur­rell and Billy Hig­gins and be­gan play­ing with Ethiopian and Cuban bands to ex­pand his chops. Then the Bruners’ cousin, Ter­race Mar­tin, got him a gig in Snoop Dogg’s horn sec­tion. “Snoop knew we were good,” says Wash­ing­ton. “It’s where the jazz came in. Be in the mo­ment and not be scared. Plus, I got this les­son in feel. Like, you can play all that stuff, but can you feel it, and play that feel? And if you don’t, you suck.” Wash­ing­ton started a res­i­dency at 5th Street Dick’s cof­fee shop in Leimert Park, play­ing with who­ever was in town. One week­end the Bruner broth­ers and Graves all can­celled. Wash­ing­ton called up drums-bass-gui­tar trio Tony Austin, Miles Mosley and Bran­don Cole­man. Then ev­ery­one showed up. The Ka­masi Wash­ing­ton dou­ble-rhythm sec­tion was born. “It opened the mu­sic up in an amaz­ing way,” says Wash­ing­ton. “I started telling ever ybody to come all the time. That be­came The West Coast Get Down.” Back from gig­ging with the likes of Snoop, Lau­ryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Stan­ley Clarke, and Kenny Gar­rett, the Get Down mem­bers started adding hip-hop, gospel R&B, funk, neo-soul and post-bop knowl­edge, with no sense that one mu­sic was su­pe­rior to the other. “I made a pact with Ka­masi that what­ever we learned we’d bring it home,” says Ron­ald Bruner Jr. “We started jump­ing ahead re­ally fast.” With money from the Snoop tour, Wash­ing­ton built a home stu­dio, us­ing the gear to record a live al­bum at 5th Street Dick’s. Af­ter an­other self-pro­duced LP fol­lowed in 2007, Stephen Bruner also caught the record­ing bug. “All of a sud­den Stephen’s play­ing with Fly­ing Lo­tus,” re­mem­bers Wash­ing­ton. “Then Golden Age Of Apoc­a­lypse comes out and ev­ery­body’s call­ing Stephen ‘Thun­der­cat’. That was a real eye-opener. We’d al­ways felt we had some­thing spe­cial, but there was no way to get it out of LA. Es­pe­cially with ev­ery­one say­ing ‘jazz is dead’. Then Thun­der­cat makes a 100 per cent jazz record. He blew up. We were like, Man, we need to push on.” On the back of Thun­der­cat’s suc­cess, it fi­nally felt like The West Coast Get Down were get­ting their mu­sic heard out­side of LA. Then Fly­ing Lo­tus asked Wash­ing­ton if he’d be in­ter­ested in putting an LP out on his Brain­feeder la­bel. “It was a dream come true,” says Wash­ing­ton. “Like hear­ing about the land of milk and honey, and then some­one comes back

with a bunch of milk and honey shout­ing, ‘IT IS THERE!’” Pulling from a reper­toire de­vel­oped dur­ing a res­i­dency at The Pi­ano Bar in Hol­ly­wood, Wash­ing­ton and friends booked a month of stu­dio time at King­size Sound­labs in Echo Park where they recorded nearly 200 pieces, 17 of which be­came The Epic; three hours of mu­sic, across three discs. With three horns, two drum­mers, two bassists, two key­boardists and a vo­cal­ist (plus choir and strings), The Epic was a new max­i­mal­ist, mul­ti­cul­tural jazz phi­los­o­phy that spoke to old and young alike, all tied to­gether by Wash­ing­ton’s raw, rangy tenor. “Real hard­core jazz went away for a while,” says Cameron Graves. “But The Epic brought it back. And peo­ple weren’t asleep. They were wait­ing for this. The Epic did what Black Pan­ther’s do­ing now. It rein­vig­o­rated in­ter­est in African her­itage and an­ces­try.” In the wake of The Epic, Wash­ing­ton’s friend, sax­o­phon­ist Ter­race Mar­tin, got him a gig adding strings to a Tu­pac skit on Ken­drick La­mar’s To Pimp A But­ter­fly. One track led to five: “It just kept build­ing. Me sit­ting on a couch with my key­boards, Ken­drick next to me. I’d never worked like that be­fore. Nor­mally I’m a her­mit.” A year af­ter The Epic’s re­lease, Wash­ing­ton started work on the fol­low-up, Heaven And Earth. In the midst of prepa­ra­tions, he was asked to cre­ate an in­stal­la­tion for the Whit­ney Bi­en­nial. Com­prised of five songs about the five stages to truth – De­sire, Hu­mil­ity, Knowl­edge, Per­spec­tive and In­tegrity – Wash­ing­ton dubbed the project and a re­sul­tant EP Har­mony Of Dif­fer­ence, a term that would come to de­scribe the sound and phi­los­o­phy of Heaven And Earth. “There was all this so­cial noise around about build­ing walls and get­ting rid of for­eign­ers,” ex­plains Wash­ing­ton. “It helped me un­der­stand what Heaven And Earth is re­ally about: the cel­e­bra­tion of multiculturalism and the power of in­di­vid­ual thought.” “With The Epic we reached out and found our an­ces­tors,” says Cameron Graves. “It was the pieces of the puz­zle. Heaven And Earth is the solv­ing of the puz­zle.”

DAMP THURS­DAY IN DALSTON. Dwarf­ing the tiny DJ booth of cool Ja­panese restau­rant Bril­liant Cor­ners, Ka­masi Wash­ing­ton in­tro­duces his new LP to a small gath­er­ing of mu­si­cians, la­bel types and jazz hip­sters (and MOJO). “It’s not about ac­tual earth and ac­tual heaven,” he says, with a dry chuckle. “It’s about how we ex­pe­ri­ence the world, and how we imag­ine it. If you had the power to change this world, would you do some­thing about it?” He presses play on Earth’s open­ing track, a heavy, squalling bat­tle-cry cover of Joseph Koo and Ku Chia Hui’s Main Theme from 1972 Bruce Lee kung fu film, Fist Of Fury. As it plays, MOJO spots Florence Welch danc­ing ex­pres­sively, all un­du­lat­ing arms, to vo­cal­ist Pa­trice Quinn’s de­fi­ant words: “When I’m faced with un­just in­jury/Then I change my hands to fists of fury.” “That’s the bleak­est point of the whole record,” ex­plains Wash­ing­ton, later. “I want peo­ple to re­alise that to live is to strug­gle, but also that life is beau­ti­ful. We’re at the bot­tom of the moun­tain, but look up.” Con­cep­tu­ally, Earth “starts at the bot­tom”, says Wash­ing­ton, mov­ing from the Black Power stance of Fists Of Fury to the cho­ral Mwan­dishi ur­gency of Can You Hear Him into an Afro-Cuban re­fit of Fred­die Hub­bard’s Hub-Tones, ris­ing to the wild melodic crescendo of One Of One. “That’s a track we couldn’t have played two years ago,” says Wash­ing­ton. “As we’ve grown we’ve had to let go, like on a sheer rocky hill – if you tighten up you’ll fall.” By con­trast, Heaven starts at the top, with a cos­mic dance of as­cend­ing strings, choirs and horns that is The Space Trav­eller’s Lul­laby, mov­ing through the Latin vocoder bal­lad Vi Lua Vi Sol – writ­ten in Brazil with Stan­ley Clarke, for a girl who told Ka­masi she could talk to the moon – and Street Fighter Mas. But it’s dom­i­nated by num­bers for those who have passed, whether it be the ten­der, danc­ing Song For The Fallen, a tribute to the late West Coast Get Down pi­anist Austin Per­alta, or the ur­gent, im­pas­sioned Show Us The Way, writ­ten for Amer­i­can slave rebel Nat Turner, be­fore end­ing on the cel­e­bra­tory Will You Sing where the 12-strong choir cry out, “With our song one day we’ll change the world, will you sing?”, over Robert ‘Sput’ Searight’s skit­ter­ing drums, Ryan Porter’s squelch­ing trom­bone and Wash­ing­ton’s weep­ing sax. Heard through Bril­liant Cor­ners’ sta­teof-the-art sur­round-sound speak­ers, the al­bum sounds al­most ex­ces­sively rich, tex­tured and up­lift­ing. It is a cel­e­bra­tion of all its in­flu­ences. This is just as Wash­ing­ton in­tended. “That’s why I put ev­ery­thing in it,” he says. “Right now it’s easy to feel de­hu­man­ised, ex­pend­able and dis­pos­able, so it’s good to have some­thing to take you out of that low place. There are dark parts to life. We all want to tuck our heads down and cry some­where. But there’s a lot that’s re­ally beau­ti­ful. It’s amaz­ing, a bless­ing, that we have all these in­flu­ences. That’s what this al­bum is say­ing: you don’t have to be over­whelmed.”

Street fight­ing Mas: (above) Ka­masi Wash­ing­ton wield­ing spir­i­tual staff; (left, from top) suits you – Wash­ing­ton play­ing with AC Timba Jazz at the Playboy Jazz Fes­ti­val, Los An­ge­les, 2006; 2015’s cos­mo­log­i­cally tuned-in mas­ter­piece The Epic; Wash­ing­ton walks on wa­ter for new al­bum Heaven And Earth.

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