Photo by Dean Budnick
Kamasi Washington —saxophonist, bandleader and emerging face of modern experimental jazz music—came on the scene with his sprawling, three-volume debut The Epic in the spring of 2015, just a couple months after his name appeared in the credits of near-consensus album of the year, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
Now, Washington and his band, which includes several musicians that he came up with as a young artist in Los Angeles, have a new EP, Harmony of Difference, which was originally conceived for the biennial celebration of New York’s Whitney Museum. And although it doesn’t match The Epic in length, the effort continues Washington’s streak of culturally significant work. While on tour in support of the EP, Washington speaks on the record’s origins and celebration of diversity, the importance of jazz to both modern musicians and modern music lovers, getting to play with The Meters on Jam Cruise and more.
I know you came up with a lot of guys from California—the West Coast Get Down—and some of them have toured with you and played on The Epic.. Did you have the same crew for Harmony of Difference ?
Yup, I’ve still got the same band. Well, Dontae Winslow was on trumpet, instead of Igmar Thomas. But for the most part it was the same band.
How important is it to you to play and record with those guys that you’ve been around for so long?
There’s a language that we all speak in our musical community, kind of like a dialect. We all speak the same language. It especially helps with communication and just allowing the music to be fluid and not rigid. You don’t have to give a lot of instruction. It allows the music to be more free.
And do you guys write together, or is it more you bringing in an idea and you guys playing off of that? Or does it come out in the studio?
My stuff is usually pretty much written out. But I always leave a lot of space to interpret.
Speaking of that group language—when you guys bring in another musician, is it difficult for them to come in, to get that dialect down?
Depends on the musician [laughs]. Sometimes guys come in and they can hang, but sometimes… We speak with a pretty wide vocabulary. So you kind of have to have studied and played a pretty wide range of music, or it may seem like stuff is all over the place, you know what I mean? You wouldn’t know what’s happening.
How do you deal with instances when the guest doesn’t really fit in, whether in the studio or on stage?
I can’t think of that really happening in the studio. At live shows, you kind of have to scale down to the lowest common denominator. It depends on what instrument they’re playing. If it’s a drummer or something like that, and they don’t understand certain moves, then you just can’t really go for them. So we adjust and we play to what they’re comfortable with.
I’ve seen you guys play, and I’m sure it’s not always an easy task, especially if you’re a drummer trying to keep up.
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah.
I’ve read that you wanted this EP to focus on the musical idea of counterpoint, and of course there’s the cultural idea implied by the title. Were you given any guidelines when the Whitney commissioned the music?
They pretty much left it wide open for me. I was kind of using counterpoint as a bit of a metaphor for a celebration of diversity, trying to take it a step beyond what counterpoint really is—that they’re individual songs, not just melodic figures. But yeah, the Whitney pretty much let me do whatever I wanted. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and it was around the time that the reality of Donald Trump was setting in. All this talk of walls, bans, just a lot of negativity—“If you believe this thing, then we don’t like you. If you live in this place, we don’t like you. If you look this way, we don’t like you.” Growing up in L.A., there’s so many people from so many cultures, and you realize that the most beautiful aspect of the country is the fact that we have different groups and different cultures living together, which makes our culture so rich.
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