17 Mar 2018

Kamasi Washington - the young giant of jazz

From RNZ Music, 1:30 pm on 17 March 2018

The American tenor saxophonist heralded as the saviour of jazz told us he'd be leaving "the music wide open" when he and his band played at WOMAD Taranaki.

Kamasi Washington

Kamasi Washington Photo: Courtesy of Brainfeeder

“The whole journey, the flight, the hotel, the people … totally affects the way we play,” Washington says.

“All those things create a momentum ... there’s an energy in the soil, and the people bring an energy, and then we bring our energy ... Putting that ... together creates a momentum and a direction and I just try to follow it.

"Basically, it’s like a current. So that’ll be fun.”

Ronald Bruner Jr, Kamasi Washington, Cameron Graves ,Stephen 'Thundercat' Bruner

Ronald Bruner Jr, Kamasi Washington, Cameron Graves ,Stephen 'Thundercat' Bruner Photo: Courtesy of Spotify

‘Young jazz giant’ seems like the best way to describe Kamasi Washington – the Los Angeles native who's been at the forefront of a recent jazz renaissance.

His tenor sax and string arrangements on Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy Award-winning album To Pimp a Butterfly introduced a new audience to a genre mostly associated with Dads and turtlenecks.

Washington's debut release was a triple album aptly titled The Epic.

Rather presciently, Young Jazz Giants was the name of the band he formed with like-minded, second-generation jazz players Cameron GravesRonald Bruner Jr. and Bruner's brother Stephen, better known to us as Thundercat.

The family connection goes far with the Bruner family: their fathers were bandmates, tutored by Los Angeles jazz hero Reggie Andrews.

Washington has been "playing with those guys since I was three years old. Like, we were little kids beating on pots and pans together".

Also under the tutelage of Reggie Andrews, both the Bruner and Washington sons followed in their fathers into the jazz world.

To Washington, the “connection is really deep” and continues to this day, even as former bandmates like Thundercat explore the easy-listening '80s genre now known as yacht rock or the little known ‘chopped and screwed’ remix approach.

“If you’re being creative all the time, that relationship will always stay fresh because, like Thundercat and I used to play together a lot more, now we don’t play together so much, but when we do play together it feels so brand new because he’s on a whole different tip than he has been.”

Chemistry and collaboration are important to Washington, who has worked with acts as diverse as John Legend, Ibeyi and Run The Jewels.

“Sometimes you’ll meet somebody and you’ll get a straight connection, like you guys are in the same energy, in the same place pretty quick.”

Washington felt this when he featured on XL Recordings founder Richard Russell’s debut release Everything is Recorded.

“It was just one of those things that the connection and the synergy was there. We just worked on music. I was only there for one day but the flow was just really good.”

“Like I said before, we try and take that vibe and connect it to the place we’re in ... Chemistry is definitely important, but intention [is], almost more so than chemistry. Every once in a while you hit that.”

Kamasi Washington will perform at Auckland's Powerstation on Friday, March 16 and at the 2018 WOMAD festival on Saturday, March 17.

Check out the rest of RNZ Music's WOMAD coverage.

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