Kamasi Washington

Dissecting The Epic With Kamasi Washington

The Jazz saxophonist talks Kendrick Lamar and being a gateway to the genre

Kamasi Washington may stick out like a sore thumb as a jazz saxophonist on the Life Is Beautiful lineup, but don’t overlook him. The 35-year-old is somewhat of a prodigy—he attended Los Angeles’ prestigious Hamilton High School Academy of Music and Performing Arts, went to UCLA on a full-ride scholarship to study ethnomusicology and formed the Young Jazz Giants with colleagues to explore world music with a jazz eye. He’s also made contributions to huge names, including Quincy Jones, Mos Def, Chaka Khan and, most recently, Kendrick Lamar. His ambitious debut triple album, The Epic, was met with universal acclaim, and it exposed the genre to a new generation.

Your triple album, The Epic, is somewhat of a love letter to bigger names of the genre, such as John Coltrane. What prompted your decision to honor the greats?

[The Epic] was mainly for me, honestly. I created that body of work to know, or find out, who I am. Musically, it’s what I’ve been doing my whole life, but I felt like I needed to use my talents and my abilities to craft something that represented who I am. The Epic is not something I contributed to, or created for, somebody else. Of course, you can hear the influences, such as Coltrane, and the other jazz greats that have moved me and helped me become who I am today, but it’s mine.

You’ve opened up a generation to jazz. The Epic may be the first jazz album some listen to. What’s next for you?

I’ve started recording my new album. We took some time off in May, but now I’m home a lot, and I will be through the end of the year. So I’ve been working on that.

Music is a representation of who you are. The last two years have been pretty different for me. They’ve affected me, which means it’s going to affect the music I create. The new stuff is different, and it’ll sound different live as well. [My band] has been playing together so much now, and all of our ideas and thoughts are getting streamlined. That means things are coming together at a faster current.

What’s the new stuff sounding like?

Different. It’s coming from that place I mentioned earlier. [As far as songwriting goes], I try to clear my mind, find something and develop ideas I’ve created. Those lead me in different directions. Each musical idea turns into a song. Then we try to turn those into conversation, which changes from song to song. It’s a process.

You made contributions to Life Is Beautiful 2015 headliner Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. How did that relationship come to be?

I met Kendrick through [producer] Terrace Martin, who was working on that album. He’d been working on it for two years at that point. [Martin] heard about The Epic, which hadn’t come out yet, but was finished. He heard the strings and choir stuff and said, “Man, I gotta introduce you
to Kendrick.”

So I came in to work on “Mortal Man,” but in order to understand that song—Tupac interview and all—he wanted me to hear the whole album. We ended up listening to the album over and over, and I made those contributions. It wasn’t too long before the release of the album. I’m thinking December 2014, so very late into the process.

As the only jazz act on the lineup, how are you going to entice new and casual listeners to watch you perform?

Jazz is just a word. If you listen to hip-hop, R&B, rock ’n’ roll … the elements we refer to in jazz exist in those worlds as well. People have difficulty with the idea of jazz.

There’s jazz all over To Pimp a Butterfly, and people are comfortable with that record because of the format it comes in. It doesn’t throw them off. Jazz is just an expression of who you are and what you’re going through. We’re all going through the same struggle; we all wake up in the morning, and we all go to sleep. I hope to tap into that struggle and vibe in the live setting.

You performed at The Smith Center with your aunt, Lula Washington, last year. How was that experience?

It was an incredibly beautiful experience. I love working with Lula. She choreographed a piece to “Re Run Home,” and we played that last time we were there. It was really cool!

I grew up hanging out with her in the studio, and this milestone opportunity came up: She introduced me to [jazz pianist] McCoy Tyner. I got to play with him at Playboy Jazz Festival. Lula’s done a lot for me. She even took me to China for the first time!

How will your performance at a music festival differ from that in a theater?

We always do something different every show. We never play the same thing twice. Vegas has such a vibe to it. There’s so much energy, and it’s a melting pot of people. People come into the city to have a good time, so that means I have a good vibe to tap into. I try to make the set—the music—happen in the moment.

And the setting. … When you play outdoors, you get the beautiful scenery and you get to play in front of more people. Inside, it’s more intimate. You feel things strongly. Our performance changes depending on the venue, so you’ll just have to see how it plays out live.

Kamasi Washington plays at 5:35 p.m. on Friday, September 23, on the Ambassador Stage.