Not since Kenny G has a saxophone player captured the attention of both young and old – to the brink of pop stardom. But Kenny is as corny as they come, so his comparison with American sax extraordinaire Kamasi Washington ends at their chosen instrument.
Part of Washington’s popularity comes from starting his professional career playing with Snoop Dogg. Most of it, though, comes from being a sideman for jazz and other eclectic artists like Gerald Wilson and Flying Lotus.
This weekend, this Los Angeles-raised composer, producer and band leader who is also the son of decorated multi-instrumentalist Rickey Washington, will perform – for the first time on South African soil – on the Kippies Stage at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. He will also host two masterclasses.
One of the things he is most looking forward to, he tells me over the phone, is conducting his masterclasses.
“I have to figure out what the musicians or students who will be attending are into so I can see what I can bring to the table based on that,” he says. “I don’t want to dictate anything. Music is such a personal experience and my favourite lessons when I was young included musicians just coming to speak to us and trying to figure out what we were into so that they could build the class around that.”
When he was a child, watching his father as an active musician was an education in itself. “It was a great blessing to have a dad who was a musician while growing up because I had all the tools I needed around me,” he says. “All the books, all the records, all the instruments and him. As far as music was concerned, the world was my oyster.”
The 36-year-old musician has since become lauded as “America’s most important saxophonist” by Vice Magazine and responsible for “bringing jazz to a whole new audience” by the Red Bull Music Academy. His three-disc debut album, The Epic, made Rolling Stone’s list of the 50 Best Albums of 2015.
And he achieved all of that simply by being himself and encouraging the collaborators on his album to do the same. He explains: “Our journey when making The Epic was kind of unique. So much of the world of music is built on practicality. What we tried to do is the opposite of what everyone else is doing right now – we tried to just make music that we love. Music that doesn’t fit into a format. And it’s been groundbreaking because of that.”
“People like the drummer, Ronald Bruner were singing. Miles Mosley (acoustic bass player) was pretty awesome with making songs that were just bass. Cameron Graves (pianist) would just write key changes on a piece of paper and we would morph the music from that. It was pretty experimental. We tried to make everything ours because we spend so much time making music for other people.”
The 17-track album has songs as long as 14 minutes and it really could have ended up being a 50-track album. “Collectively, we had 190 songs and from that, 45 songs were for my project,” he recalls. “So it took me a long time to get through the music and figure out what the album was going to be.”
“I got fixated on the 17 songs that ended up being on The Epic. I had a dream that had that music as a soundtrack and that dream made me feel like something was telling me to put this whole thing out – all 17 tracks – to not try to reduce it anymore. This is what this album is supposed to be. So I named it The Epic because I saw that dream like it was a story and the story is what changed the album.”
Before that, Washington’s friend, the Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist and producer, Terrace Martin, invited him to play on Mortal Man off Kendrick Lamar’s now-iconic To Pimp A Butterfly album. It’s a lengthy song that sees Lamar converse with the late Tupac.
“Kendrick wanted me treat Mortal Man like a film score,” Washington shares. “He wanted me to capture the energy and emotion that Tupac was giving off.”
“Terrace put me on this project and he didn’t tell me what they wanted me to do. I got to the studio thinking: ‘Terrace himself is an amazing saxophone player so I don’t know what they want me to do!’ They played the interview with Kendrick talking to Tupac and I was freaked out at first. But after that, I realised the words were so powerful that I wanted to play something that matched that.”
My favourite song on The Epic is Malcolm’s Theme – where a sung adaptation of Ossie Davis’ eulogy at Malcom X’s funeral meets Terence Blanchard’s melody and Washington’s inspiration. It carries the line: “no more a man but a seed which will come forth again”. So I ask Washington what seeds he is planting for future generations.
He pauses to think about this then answers: “The gift that myself and my generation has left for the future is that we really connected across the board. My father’s generation had to choose what they were going to be and we’ve chosen to be everything. The advancement of humankind in general comes from thinking across lines and barriers of your own experience. I hope my music acts as a conduit that shows the left hand what the right hand is doing. I hope my legacy is one of communion.”
*The Cape Town International Jazz Festival takes place at the Cape Town ICC on Friday, March 31 and Saturday, April 1.