Kamasi Washington, is there any room for jazz in the planet pop?

How did saxophone’s gentle giant had his commercial breakthrough, counting almost as a pop star? Leonidas Antonopoulos, Thanasis Minas and Nikos Fotakis help with the answer.

Artwork: Katerina Karali

He looks massive and towering. A striking tall guy. Afro hair, intense gaze, colored dashikis and sneakers, complete his image. Oh wait, there’s something more. His sceptre, his golden tenor saxophone that he holds with his hands full of big impressive rings.

From the very beginning, the image of Kamasi Washington -a once session saxophonist who’s popularity rises day by day, this jazz musician who now appears in the most unexpected places- almost looks like a cryptography: beyond the overwhelming expectation it exudes, it works like a map with everything significant finding their essense in the roots African-American culture. Αll positioned with surgical precision, without leaving anything to chance. Maybe, the only truth is that we do not see every day a jazz musician enjoying mainstream status and acceptance like a rock star.

But how did “epic” Kamasi win this difficult bet and brought jazz to a more alternative and even pop audience?

Artwork: Katerina Karali

“I can’t get Kamasi Washington. It’s almost impossible for me to explain his case. At first I snobbed him. I was saying that if someone wants to understand what today’s jazz is, go listen to Christian Scott, Esperanza Spalding or GoGo Penguin, not some guy that reproduces 60s’ spiritual jazz. And if you’re in for spiritual jazz, better listen to Nat Birchall. But Birchall is a 60 years old saxophonist from Manchester, obsessed with Coltrane, not a 35 year from Los Angeles who worked with Kendrick Lamar and releases a triple concept jazz album that suddenly becomes a must-have to an irrelevant with jazz audience, like nothing ever happened” jazz editor Nikos Fotakis (australianjazz.net) says, beginning his frank reasoning.

But let’s take a look in Kamasi Washington’s career so far. He was born in 1981 in sunny LA. His mother was a teacher and his father a musician –his father, Rickey nowadays plays the flute in his son’s tours- and he was the one to get him into jazz. Kamasi hold the saxophone for the first time when he was 13. But he was raised in a ghetto which means that he spent his listening time between jazz improvisations and West Coast rhymes.

About ten years ago, he was part of touring bands for such artists as Snoop Dogg and Lauryn Hill, and his name was included in album credits from legends like Quincy Jones and artists like Flying Lotus and Ryan Adams. But his turning point came with his appearance in Kendrick Lamar’s magnum opus so far, To Pimp A Butterfly in 2015. A hip hop album that looked back in black music’s roots, bringing to the spotlight hip hop’s flert with jazzy sounds, in the exact same way that A Tribe Called Quest did exemplary in the early 90s.

If we we’d like to identify a likely highlighting of jazz in contemporary pop music, probably this is the exact moment we have to pay attention to. At least for Kamasi, this was the preparatory step for his personal musical proposal that came officially some months after, with his debut, The Epic (he already had three self-releases). An album that, theoretically was against all odds to make a breakthrough to audiences that, till then, were getting squeezed in small smoky venues and were sweating in big open air festivals. An album literally epic in in size, clocking almost at three hours, filled with cerebral improvisations of a cosmic and timeless jazz that reaches even Debussy and “Clair de Lune”.

But, what if this is exactly why, the mentioned above target group could relate? What if it may recognized themes that wake some unconscious sonic contacts indefinitely familiar, that are kept in a dusty box of true music fans’ memory? So a condition that finds its functionality and builds a qualitative alibi was created. But of course that could not be enough.

Artwork: Katerina Karali

“What’s important in Kamasi Washington’s case is that his music has a wide range. It begins from Coltrane’s avant garde and free jazz, gets through 70s funk and ends up in hip hop. All these different elements, that have a lot in common, are found in his music” radio producer Thanasis Minas notes and Leonidas Antonopoulos, also a radio producer, adds: “Apart from his approach, you can listen from Pharoah Sander and Sun Ra to James Brown and today’s music generation. Musically, he manages to create this condensation, that it’s not that easy and a very few have achieved. Kamasi pulls it off through jazz”.

Of course the blending of this kind of elements in the jazz canvas is not big news. Let’s remember Miles Davis in 1986’s Tutu andhis trumpet roaming in funk grooves with electro pop touches in full (but debatable) harmony with the decate, creating an informal jazz pop genre. And just before his death, he hi five’d with hip hop in the album Doo-Bop that was released posthumously –who knows what he would do if only had lived a bit longer?

But let’s go… deeper. Thanasis Minas remembers a similar impact, but of a smaller range that the Swedish Esbjörn Svensson Trio achieved in the 00s and, if we want to see what’s happening now, we could mention the case of BadBadNotGood, that roast their jazz payments in a more varied blend. Thanasis Minas emphasizes that “Kamasi Washington made his crossover without selling-out his sound, his jazz stayed improvisational and for demanding listeners”.

Apart from all the above, and despite the verbal economy of his music, Kamasi Washington manages to imprint a narration of his tribe and his times –he becomes the jazz voice of Black Lives Matter. “Fists of Fury”, the opening track of his later release, Heaven and Earth (ep Harmony of Differenece came before that in 2017) proves it. It is a rhythmic light-hearted procession that peaks gradually and shouts: ““Our time as victims is over / We will no longer ask for justice / Instead we will take our retribution”, compared to a contemporary “Gimme Shelter”, concerning to aesthetics and a pumping fist in the air.

If The Epic was a carefully calculated jazz elegy that was lightened up from the cold moon (“Clair de Lune” gives place for such a metaphor), then Heaven and Earth enriches his influences, there is fervor and proximity that reflect on the two natural elements of the title. The difference is presented with the cover: a black and white imposing of the first, opposite to Kamasi’s image as another Jesus walking on water, of his sophomore album.

The Epic (2015, Brainfeeder)
Heaven and Earth (2018, Young Turks)

For each earthly problem that Heaven and Earth expresses, like in “Fists of Fury” and “Street Fighter Mas”, there’s a transcendent element, when, for example, names a track “The Psalmnist”. Or in “Will You Sing” , the choristers say goodbye to the listener like they are some kind of cherubs with a history in Blue Note. Leonidas Antonopoulos is to the point: “His music itself has something that was for a long time missing. A spiritual element that resembles directly to Coltrane of the 60s”. But Kamasi Washington’s music, even in its structure, uses pop molds. In Heaven and Earth there are vocal parts that work as choruses, funk grooves from George Clinton’s “Church”. Kamasi’s music goes beyond jazz and is sonically and in its message, a feast of the black color.

These are not his only pop terms. Firstly, he chooses to release his music in labels such as Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder for his debut, and for his sophomore album he chose the british Young Turks, record company of artists like the xx and FKA Twigs. In his new work he knows mainstream mechanisms even better. The first single “Fists of Fury” is a cover of the music theme from Bruce Lee’s film of the same name. In the videoclip, directed by AG Rojas, Kamasi is presented as a samurai gangster tha pays a tribute to his favorite 90s arcade video game, Street Fighter. Add, the clever commercial trick of including an extra secret EP, The Choice, in the LP release of Heaven and Earth. In The Choice you can hear a cover of Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” that Carole King sang and co-wrote.

Even the way that he builds his collaborations resembles to hip hop families. “He acts with today’s rules. He has a team of musicians, collaborations, collectives. With them, he makes a statement apart from music” Leonidas Antonopoulos underlines. His relationship with Thundercat is such an example. They appear frequently in each others records, exactly like rappers from the same consortium, often do.

Kamasi Washington knows very well how to keep his musical mentality unshaken and at the same time, how to take a good head start(without overdoing it) of a strategy that made him easily a Pitchfork darling. Of course there is an audience that waits for the next hype in line… Kamasi satisfies these people, but that is not the only appreciation of him. He can be grandiose and, at the same time, he can walk on water in sneakers. And this is a lot more than a plain visual metaphor. There’s nothing but what time is going to bring. But Kamasi already seems that he managed to unlock the pop riddle through jazz spirituality.

“Probably this is Kamasi’s secret” Nikos Fotakis says. “How he managed, before even turning 40, to impose like a wise old man, as a spiritual leader of of his tribe, as a carrier of a musical tradition that passes through generations. You get it when you see him, when he invites on stage his father, when he introduces the band, its members being childhood friends of his, when he talks about his granny. Kamasi represents a social structure that preexist of the modern man and that he recommends as an answer to the cruelty of today’s society. His music is simultaneously an homage to 70s jazz and something absolutely fresh. Or, better, is a music that brings 70s jazz to todays scene, in an absolutely natural way. So much that it’s unnecessary to wonder what it is this thing you listen to. You just let yourself go… Nobody has done this, he’s the only one. And that makes him a phenomenon”.

Do you, also, find stunning that this conversation is made on the same week that John Coltrane’s Lost Album got released?

This article was originally published in greek in popaganda.gr.

Journalist, spending her life between the chaos of sound and the chaos of words and everything that lays between them.