Tag Archives: jazz

Exclusive: Kamasi Washington | Grand on the Musical Scale

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In a world of increasingly quick, fast, now, next… we can and easily do lose sight of some things that last longer and delve deeper. Many move on to the next before really appreciating the now. Theoretically, it seems something extraordinary will just simply rise to the top against lesser competition. But it often tends to be the opposite — with a distracted and perhaps media-exhausted audience.

Just look at how we find new music – blended in with a seemingly endless list of others one click or swipe away; as opposed to sitting down for a listen to one album by one artist, for a dedicated period of time. Let alone if music doesn’t follow a traditional 4/4 format and verse/chorus/bridge in a clean 3.5 min package. That is what for many of our ears we’ve perhaps accepted as comfort.

But for the likes of saxophone extraordinaire Kamasi Washington, no bother. He has succeeded in growing his talent immensely since a young age, and now pioneering an impressive career while doing what may be exactly the key: Not really paying attention to what conventional wisdom would say – rather making strides to explore and hone his craft the way his art form and fellow musicians inspire him to do so. And letting the track run on a little longer [10 + min at times], where he may come across a new found groove that would’ve remained caged and tethered. Ahhh, let freedom reign!

This approach, whether directly intentional or not, has frequently landed Kamasi in recording studios and on stages with many of music’s brightest stars, save no genre — including Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar, and Broken Bells just to name a recent few.

Now in 2015, he has proudly presented his momentous effort, the critically acclaimed and aptly entitled album, “The Epic.” Take for example that Kamasi — and his crew “The Next Step or The West Coast Get Down” (who have been playing together since high school) have spent nearly five years putting together this album — which is a close to three-hour collection featuring  full choirs and string sections. 

I talked with Kamasi ahead of his upcoming show at World Café Live 8/27 (tix HERE) about The Epic, some experiences that have in turn formed his approach, and much more.


CONVERSATION WITH KAMASI WASHINGTON


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Aran Hart: What do you think it is in your musical education, exploration, or maybe just in your natural ear for music that lends itself to successfully trying out different varieties/forms of music?

Kamasi Washington: It’s probably mix of all that, my personality combined with how I like to live. I kind of get obsessed with whatever I’m doing. I was also an Ethnopsychology major (the psychology of races and peoples) in school. I studied jazz music growing up and got my first gig with Snoop Dogg… so it’s always been a mixture of things bringing me to where I am today.

AH: With a lot of music that listeners are exposed to today, there is a safe format/structure that many have come to expect when they press play… How does your approach and style differ? How do find a groove and bring all the moving parts together into what can be a track/song/album ?

KW: In my approach to music I didn’t ever really take to those conventions. With my career I spent so much time playing for other people and immersing myself into whatever their music was.  It was great for me because I learned and absorbed a lot from them, but it became hard to express my own thoughts, ideas, and concepts.

When I started into my own process, I was able to be much more uncompromising. It’s like a dog that’s lived in the yard for so long and you open the gate — it wants to run. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to run, I wanted to go, I didn’t want to really pay attention to other people. I was by myself and there were no rules…  no time punching … I could just make the music the way that it naturally came. It happens so often that musicians feel as if they don’t follow those conventions, that no one listen to their music, that no one will play their music, or no one will like their music. So they follow those guidelines because they think that’s what they need to do. I didn’t care. I was going to express myself how I wanted to express myself and not be so concerned about the outcome.



AH: I know you just talked about how you focused inward for your own music. Could you also talk about the importance of playing with other musicians — that collaborative process — and for you in particular how it has helped you learn and grow as a musician…

KW: It’s very important in general, not just in music, but in life… in order to expand your horizons. For me when I play music with someone else I try to totally immerse myself in their philosophy, and take that information and that philosophy back to my music. I often learn something new about my music by looking at it in a new way I didn’t know was there.

I remember in the band we had together with Snoop, people were seeing that they had this super detailed and different approach to hearing music and playing music… For example, there were different frequencies and tones people felt were relevant to them. Not just what key you were playing but what part of the beat you were playing on. We weren’t just talking about notes… we were talking about frequencies, and life organisms (haha). And really they were all related to what everyone else knew about each other. It gets deep…

AH: Given your music’s format and style, how closely does the live version of your music resemble its recording?

KW: Every time I play it’s completely different. Even if I tried to make it the same it would be completely different. When I was putting together my album we had a full choir, a full band, and we had all these plans. It’s a difficult thing but it’s a beautiful thing about the guys that I play with… We’re all really  tuned in to each other. And when you’re tuned in like that your spirit changes not just day to day, but even hour to hour. It won’t be the same tempo, won’t be the same place. So, the music is dictating for us to go different places. The slightest little change in feeling or space might, and usually does, totally change what you end up playing.

In terms of live versions — we just finished our first two weeks of our first tour [dates] — and basically every single night has been completely different. It’s cool though because it ends up being relevant to where we are. I don’t try to force it in any one direction… just flow with it, and we’re all open to responding and reacting to what it is, not what it was.


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AH: Are you superstitious or ritualistic about any part of playing your music? Any kind of must haves or must do’s that you can share?

KW: No, not exactly. If anything I really try to clear my mind and relax by taking a moment or two to day dream. I’m around a bunch of musicians that all are pretty spacey and all over the place [haha]. So I find myself wrangling all the personalities to I guess … keep the chaos in order — but really the chaos is the order. I think I try not to do any one thing because there’s an energy and a spirit that you get from being free and you can’t really be free and do the same thing every time. I try to let myself be open to whatever’s going to happen at that moment.

AH: You have an impressive list of features and appearances where you’ve played with a lot of different people and sat in on studio sessions etc… Discuss the difference in the creative process for you now being the “leader” of your own project(s)?

KW: For someone else’s project you are figuring out what that other person or people have in mind as their vision — and what they want. And you know, sometimes it’s challenging and sometimes it’s not. Some people are articulate and can tell you want they want and some people can’t.

Making music for yourself is more trying to create that vision, which is a different feel and different process — it’s more introspective. It’s like looking in versus looking out. When I was making The Epic, it was very clear to me what the vision of this album was and what I was going to be trying to capture. There was a sound and an approach I knew that we as a group had been working on for a while.

As a listener, you kind of just listen. With this, I could really feel all the changes, the push and pull of what was happening. I was in it. Everything felt amplified, and bigger, and slower in a way. For me it became very contextual and I could see it the different colors and different textures, if you will.



AH: Two part question: Your music being mainly instrumental seems to  allow the listener to interpret a scene, rather than lyrics driving a topic… Do you see any movie scores or soundtracks in your future? And also, talk about the power of instrumental music compared to music that is lyric driven…

KW: As far as the movie score, yea that would be awesome. When I came up with the concept of The Epic I was definitely thinking about epic in the sense of “the story,” not “the size.” What inspired the whole album to be what it is, was that I had this vague kind of dream, which turns into this “wow story.” That story really encompasses what all the songs are about.

In regards to instrumental music… Music to me is a universal form of expression and to a degree sometimes words can get in the way of expression. Of course also sometimes lyrics can capture what the music is expressing. I feel like music in general doesn’t come from us, it comes through us. It comes to us as a seed and depending on what you do to it, it grows. So in that aspect, music is left in the hands of the writer and in the musician.

That’s why great songs differ from good songs, and good songs differ from bad songs. It’s like listeners all think, “Did the composer capture the essence of the music? And if so, how exactly did they capture that essence?” Basically, that’s going to dictate to the listener if they like the song.

Words add another layer — but also another opportunity to mess it up. Instrumental music is the purest form of expression. Once you bring words into the mix it can really amplify an expression — by either having your words match that expression, or you can mess it up by having words that don’t match.

With instrumental music you just feel it. It’s telling you something. You’re learning something. You’re feeling something and absorbing it. You’re communicating something without words… rather with a pure emotional connection.


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AH: Lastly, where would one most likely find you in your hometown of LA? 

KW: I’m all over the place. I live in Inglewood so maybe catch me somewhere like Leimert Park. We have an ongoing residency at Piano Bar in Hollywood. Honestly, I’m a pretty active person, not a home body, so I’m all over the place… So wherever there’s something happening, there’s a good possibility I’m there!



::::::: See/Listen/Feel more from Kamasi Washington :::::::
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** Photos courtesy of Mike Park

Film Review: Whiplash

Dir. Damien Chazelle
Score: 8.3

I had a conversation about this film before I got to see it with a friend of mine who couldn’t understand how a movie about a gifted student in a prestigious music school could offer much in the way of drama beyond that of Fame, or its ilk; a schmaltzy ode to the power of young-person artistic desire. But then, I very much doubt she was imagining a music professor screaming “I will fuck you like a pig!” at one of his utterly cowed students, either.

Damien Chazelle’s second feature is a stunning film filled with emotional sweep and poignancy, and best of all, the ambiguousness of its two main protagonists. It’s not a facile film coming to simple conclusions about its subject matter. Like its grand antagonist, the hard-driving, abusive jazz teacher Terence Sterling (J.K. Simmons), the film offers a sharply focused array of possibilities, allowing you to take away what you will, but not before drawing more than a little blood: Most of which shed by Andrew (Miles Teller), an auspicious young drummer in his first year at the (fictitious) Schaffer School of Music in New York.

Besotted by jazz greats like Buddy Guy and James Jones, Andrew assumes his time will surely come, especially after a chance meeting with the legendary Sterling one evening in his practice studio. When Sterling then invites him to join his studio Jazz band after a fast audition, Andrew imagines how easy it will be to wow him with his technique and chops. Only that’s not how it works for Sterling. Arriving at precisely 9:00 AM, with the other members, having nervously tuned and prepped themselves, standing at rapt attention, their faces pointed to floor, it quickly becomes clear Andrew is in no way prepared for the unconscionably demanding Sterling, who screams him into tears at their first session, a moment that earns him considerably more chagrin (“Oh, my dear God — are you one of those single tear people?” Fletcher asks incredulously).

Making Fletcher even more of a monster, he tears the boy apart by first setting him up, talking with him gently during the pre-practice warm-up, and getting the naïve Andrew to open up about his home life, including his writer father (Paul Reiser), who has had a limited career, and an absent mother who left him when he was a baby. It takes no time at all for Sterling to use this information against him during one of his tirades, blaming Andrew’s lack of precise timing as a result of having a talentless hack for a father and a mother who couldn’t wait to leave him.

In a relatively short period of time Andrew learns the only way he can survive Sterling’s onslaught and achieve his goal of being “one of the greats” is to pay for it not just in sweat and blood — though both flow freely during his grueling practice sessions — but to sublimate everything else in his life, including a fledgling romance with a sweet-faced Fordham co-ed (Melissa Benoist) — to his artistic mandate. Under constant stress and scrutiny by the indefatigable Sterling, and facing other challengers for the core chair from other players, Andrew eventually works himself up into such a lather he crawls out from the wreckage of a massive car accident and starts running down the street with his stick bag in tow in order to make a competition on time.

The film is impeccably shot and brilliantly acted, but what really sets it into rarefied air is the way it quickly shifts our sympathies back and forth between the two figures: Andrew, who starts out sweet-faced and cherubic, quickly learns to be every bit as ruthlessly competitive and unlikable as his teacher, eschewing any kind of socializing for his drumming obsession; while Sterling, the cruel taskmaster, starts proving a certain method to his madness, offering a philosophic bent on the nature of greatness and how one might be able to tap into it only if you pour everything you have into what you do.

By the film’s thrilling conclusion — let’s just say it involves a wild solo in front of a Lincoln Center audience with both men glaring daggers at one another — you switch sides back and forth as if watching a tennis contest at center court. Is Sterling a savagely bitter and intense bully, who twists everyone to bend to his incorrigible will, or is he simply a realist, pushing his students beyond what they think they can do for the soaring possibility of their talent? Chazelle’s excellent screenplay allows for both interpretations to be equally true, his vision enhanced greatly by the riveting performance of his two leads. It’s a virtuoso effort from a relatively obscure young filmmaker, but after his film’s incredible showing at Sundance (where it won both the critical jury and audience prizes), he will likely not be underestimated again.