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Interview: Kamasi Washington Talks Universal Harmonies and Art In LA

Interview: Kamasi Washington Talks Universal Harmonies and Art In LA

Interview by Jeff Henderson / Wednesday 21st March, 2018 2:16PM

Los Angeles contemporary jazz icon Kamasi Washington swung into New Zealand with his top tier band for a sensational show Auckland's The Powerstation and a return performance at WOMAD over the weekend. Washington's spiritually uplifting work is beloved by audiences worldwide, along with his own acclaimed releases including Harmony Of Difference and The Epic, the artist achieved huge levels of visibility via his collaboration with hip hop superstar Kendrick Lamar on the pivotal 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly. Saxophone-wielding sonic voyager Jeff Henderson (director of Auckland-based experimental music facilitators the Audio Foundation) generously took time out to sit down with Washington while he was in town for an interview which delves into both artists' love of musical creation and beyond. Read their insightful conversation below...

I've only got twenty minutes so I better talk about music, but I was gonna ask if you follow boxing? Because that's quite interesting... there's always a good conversation about music and boxing. Miles Davis was always going on about boxing, Matthew Shipp, he's a big boxing fan.

I do a little bit, I can definitely see the relationship, interaction y'know. Boxing is more about reading a person. More than about your strength or speed or anything else, you kind of know what someone wants to do. Kind of the opposite of music in that, you're not going against someone in music? It's like when you read a person, you know what they're trying to do... to be able to make music much of a higher level. The best bands you hear have that kind of relationships with each other. They are really in each others minds, and it's happening at the same time rather than reactionary. When it's reactionary I go "da da da da" and you go "da da da da." But we go "DA DA DA DA" together, out of the sky. There's a momentum that creates.

Totally, do you find that you can hear that? In terms of playing with musicians where it's like, you know people that are in that space.

Oh yeah, you can feel it when you're playing with someone. You can hear it when you hear a band. When I'm playing with someone I can pretty immediately tell if we're... synched up [laughs].

That's the magic isn't it, of the collective becoming something that you can't do on your own, it terms of some kind of flow of listening and interaction.

I think that's the real power of music. I think as an audience member or as a fan it happens a little less deliberately, but if you look up sometimes you realise "I'm in a room full of people I don't know," and we're all in a sense together in a way that, if we were just in a shopping mall or something like that, we wouldn't be together. But all of a sudden you play a song, that we all connect to, and it connects all of us. It's kind of an amazing thing that happens. It's so commonplace in our lives we don't really think about it, like kind of an amazing feat that happens at a concert or a party from just playing a record. All of a sudden everyone in the room is on the same wavelength.

I would say that people can't really necessarily articulate it, but that's what they're going for is that other space that happens when the music is there. And everyone's in it. And that's somewhere you can't... I suppose there are different ways, maybe manipulating your consciousness, but music seems to be quite a unique one because each group and each time something happens it's a unique space.

You can share it. People who kind of meditate and come to a higher level of consciousness, but that's kind of an individual, personal thing. Music, we're kind of doing that in the way we practice our instruments, we play the music we play with other musicians in that it's a same kind of similar thing. But the difference is that I can then share that, and that kind of level of connection. I was just talking to that other guy [an earlier interviewer] about, especially with instrumental music... the difference between instrumental music and music with lyrics... it connects you on a level that you don't even realise it's kind of happened. So there's like a bass line level of humanitarianism that you find amongst everyone who's a John Coltrane fan. Even though there's not a lot of words, you're not following some doctrine that he wrote, just in listening to the music it takes you to a place. Meanwhile a real hardcore bigot and a John Coltrane fan, it just doesn't happen that way. If you allow that music to get into your spirit, those two ideologies won't exist. It's this reason like, sound is the one sense we can't turn off. I think it's supposed to be this thing that keeps us connected...

Yeah sound, sure you listen with your ears, but the body being in these waves, it's your whole body that receives it. That's the universe, everything comes from vibration. The Big Bang and all that. Do you recall when that became conscious for you as a musician. When you became conscious of playing with people when that became present? The idea that there's something going that's about the meeting of these people creating something that's much bigger than themselves. As a player, rather than a listener.

I started playing pretty young, and I think I had a subconscious understanding of it before I was really conscious of it. It was more like... my Dad's a musician, and a lot of my friends, they're my Dad's friends' kids. So we kind of grew up playing together, when were younger we didn't have words for it but there we could tell the difference between the people we played with that were connected and weren't. We were a little less nice about it [laughs]. A little more crude, but I understand that now, that's what that really was. And we were like, like five or six of us, by the time we were in High School there were fifteen to twenty of us, we were all in the same neighbourhood, and we all kind of had that. Not necessarily on purpose, it kind of developed that way. As I got older I started to think more, I don't know exactly when I became conscious of it, like "ohhh some people are connecting on a higher level than other people." That's why it feels different to play with this person than that person. I can't really pinpoint when I became completely conscious of it. Like I said before, I was sub-consciously conscious of it since I was young, a kid. At a certain point I started to go "oh, I get it now."

These are things that I think are difficult to talk about, because these are the things that are felt or sensed.

It's impossible to explain to someone too, because sometimes, especially someone musically not connecting on that level, they're not usually aware of it.

People who are inwardly or concerned with their thing rather than 'out'.

So they're listening more like "oh I'm in time with you." But if I'm in tune with you it's like "what are we really going to talk about?" It's become a mix. But I have learned from playing in a lot of musical situations how to connect with someone who maybe isn't connecting with me. It just comes from kind of humbling yourself, and just going "okay, it won't be a two-way connection but I can one-way connect with you." And just make it like that.

And then hope that person somehow becomes aware of that.

As a musician you're playing with people, just interacting with people. You talk to someone who's read this book and talk to a person who hasn't read the book, and it's like "I can still talk to you. Still interact with you. You just may not know this." But on the higher level, plane, everyone's kind of on that and that's how you get to the rare moments in music. It does require that two-way connection, even something beyond that, I probably haven't figure it out myself, it really gets you to those really special moments in music.

You have to be open and brave I suppose in terms of allowing that to happen, and recognising you're one of the people facilitating and just have to trust... rather than something unfamiliar happening and going "I better pull this back." Because I'm sure that's how new things appear, not through conscious decision, but more through chaos. I guess this is where improvising is so important. You can't, when you're improvising, tell someone else what to do. That's the joy of it as well, you have these musicians but I imagine you don't tell them what to play when they're improvising, that's not the point.

When you're improvising what you're doing is you're really, creating music in the moment. So it's like a creation that is in a more pure sense happening because of the environment and the situation that we're currently in right at that second. A person who's taking a solo... the whole band's improvising, everyone is improvising in those moments. There's one person who's basically playing the melody, that's the soloist. The same way when we're composing music, we want things to line up in a certain way. That's where that connection becomes so important, so that it can really get to some place... and you have those moments where it's just everyone is so finely in tune with one another. They don't last so long, but when it happens it's so powerful that, twenty seconds of it you're like "woah!"

So when you're composing are you thinking... each different composition and its quality is going to enable something in the improvisation that wouldn't be possible without it?

Usually when I'm composing it's an idea. More pre-existing, it's something that is more continuous. So with that continues idea, we're going to have a reaction in the moment, that's what I'm talking about.

So it's like, one river, and then a lake. So you're swimming in that river and that's different to swimming in the lake.

For me we change the songs a lot. Because it's like talking about sports in LA is different to talking about sports in Auckland. So the songs, sometimes like you were saying, to get to this place... so we're going to play the show today and I can kind of feel the energy of what's happening in this moment right now. And the song and the version that's on the album, may not really be what's happening right now. So we'll change it to shape it to this. And then the solo, you get really into this particular moment. For writing a song, I'll just write the song.

Most of my music comes from some small little idea, and I grow it and shape it into something bigger. But I could have grew it and shaped it in a different direction. I could have made it grow like this or I could have made it grow like that. The decisions I make on that level are more, I'm thinking more universally, in the moment. Because playing live, for me it's all about that moment. I don't really so much consider what the record was. It's more like what's happening right now. With the record I'm think more longevity, what do I want this song to feel like forever? I can pick one, each song has many faces and you can (ask) "what's the face that I want to have?"

I totally agree, it sounds like that as well. You live in LA, you were talking about the moment now, how's this moment in Los Angeles? How does that affect your music? It's a very big city, all we hear here is politics and how terrible all that is. Does that manifest in the music?

Yeah, it's an interesting thing because in LA in particular, there are lots of cities that are like this in the United States, but LA in particular is a very, very diverse place. It's kind of weird, we have this thing where people from places that aren't very diverse are complaining about it. Whereas people who live in very diverse places love it. There isn't this sense of like "there's too many different people here, we don't want these foreigners." That's not the energy. People kind of love it. When people come to visit you, we go "we gotta show you Korea Town and Chinatown and Little Armenia and we'll take you for some tacos." We show you the city. The kind of make up of the city is that, a bunch of different cultures infused into one.

Beyond that, on the political side, people not being okay with the kind of hateful rhetoric that's going around. LA has always had a very rich artistic culture, until recently it wasn't really known for that. On the artistic level, people who made music, art, poetry all those kinds of things in Los Angeles, have felt that sense of isolation a little bit? I would know fifteen years ago a lot of the real heroes from LA, no one's going to know about them outside of LA.

It seems, it's the artists and musicians that make a place desirable or cool. I used to go to New York, when I first went there I was hanging out on the Lower East Side, and now you go there and every apartment is a million dollars of whatever. All that culture has kind of been swished out and moved on. Same thing happened in Berlin, the people that plan cities they know this, they have their strategies where they go, artists and musicians, cheap rent, that's how you get a scene happening. That's how you get the people there, that's how you get this great positive energy. And then it gets gentrified and the rents go up and then see you later to all the music and art.

We're kind of in that state right now where the energy's really good, there's all this attention, there's all this opportunity. So that's where we're at right now. It's kind of cool because people feel very inspired and everyone feels hopeful. Where before, those that really wanted to make art were like "I'm never going to not make it. But I understand the relevance and the beauty of other forms that will allow me to live." It wasn't really about making money... it was about finding the artistry in other arts that were considered to be more mainstream. And that affected the mainstream, that's how you have someone like Kendrick (Lamar). Who is super mainstream, but is one hundred percent art. And that is a byproduct of that. So I think it's a good time in LA right now. I can see that horizon that you were saying before, maybe it will or maybe it won't, kind of coming over the hilltop [laughs].


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