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Jazz composer Kamasi Washington on the making of his sprawling album, 'The Epic'

Kamasi Washington (center, with saxophone) and his band.
Kamasi Washington (center, with saxophone) and his band.
Mike Park

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Kamasi Washington is a 34-year-old jazz saxophonist and composer from Los Angeles. He recently released a three-disc album that is fittingly titled, “The Epic.” The sprawling showcase is getting rave reviews for Washington and a collective of brilliant musicians, many of whom grew up together in L.A. 

Kamasi Washington met with the Frame's Oscar Garza to discuss the making of "The Epic" and growing up as a jazz musician in L.A.

Interview Highlights

How would you describe your music?

I'd describe it as West Coast jazz of now. Well, actually it's more like L.A. jazz, Leimert Park jazz. There is a freedom to it because, in general, I don't restrict musicians at all. It can go in any direction. You know, you can change the form, or the time signatures change. The keys change and the chord changes change. So it feels very fluid.

I had a 10-piece band that I grew up with. We have known each other since we were kids — before we played music — like when I was three years old. Ronald Bruner, Tony Austin, Miles Mosley, Thundercat, Brandon Coleman, Cameron Graves, Ryan Porter, Patrice Quinn — all these people I grew up with.

So we went to record and I really encouraged them to just be free and open. The way we are when we play live. I was like, Don't wig out because we're in the studio and just trying to be really straight and narrow. It feels like it is through-composed, but it feels really free at the same time. I think that's what people are kind of tripping out on.

I can't say I remember a jazz album being produced in Los Angeles that has gotten this kind of attention — not just here, but around the country and around the world. This is a three-disc recording that you put out both on CD and vinyl and it has been several years in the making. Tell me about the genesis of this record.

Well, the true genesis started way back in 2005. I was over at a mentor of mine, Gerald Wilson's house. I had recently done a live recording with my band and we were playing this place called 5th Street Dick's. When he heard that live recording, Brandon Coleman was playing some keyboard strings just randomly in the set. We talked about classical music a lot. [Wilson] was like, "Man, you should write some strings for this band and have this band play with a full orchestra!" That just resonated in my head.

In 2010, when Flying Lotus asked me to make a record, that Gerald Wilson thing just came right back and popped into my head. 

You mention your colleagues who you play with — they're part of this pretty tight collective of musicians. All of you have been recording various things for the last four years. Is this the first thing that has come out of those sessions?

Yeah, in December of 2011 we decided to just lock ourselves away from the world and spend the whole 30 days recording each others' music. You know, from like 10 in the morning until two in the morning every day. We ended up with a really staggering amount of music. There was like 190 songs — like two terabytes worth of music. Me personally, I walked away with 45 songs to create my album.

The New York Times' Ben Ratliff, who writes about jazz for the newspaper, said yours is one of the best jazz groups he has heard in a long time. It's been a long time since a jazz artist from L.A. got this level of recognition. Did you expect this kind of reception? Did you have an idea of what you had on your hands?

I always knew that people would love it if they ever got to it. Art in L.A. a lot of the time gets kind of overlooked in a lot of ways. We've played in front of different types of audiences. I mean we've played clubs where I could see in their faces when they saw us setting up: That looks like jazz. I didn't come to see jazz.

The music is so inclusive that regardless of the people's background, they gravitate towards it and it speaks to them. 

You recorded the album four years ago. Why did it take so long to come out?

Well, it's the life of a working musician. It's hard. I had to commit myself to a time to do it. One, I knew I wanted that band. The instrumentation came second to the personnel. I wanted these players, these people, to be in the room together. They're in demand. It really took the effort for any of the music to be made because we all had to make sacrifices. We all had to tell people no and lose money.

You grew up here in Los Angeles. Were  you really 11-years-old when you heard an Art Blakey record that you said steered you towards jazz?

It may have been earlier than that, maybe 10. What happened was, my dad is a musician — Ricky Washington, a great musician.

So you grew up around musicians all the time but did you think you would go in that direction?

No, I had an older brother who was really talented. He'd play Stevie Wonder songs and the blues when he was like five years old, so everybody kind of thought he was going to be the musician. I was kind of a serious kid. Well, not serious, but like into science and stuff like that. So people thought I was going to go that route.

At the same time, I was kind of getting caught up into the stereotypes that people put in South Central L.A. My self-identity was a little off. So I was seeing myself as one of those stereotypes and kind of projecting myself into that. Even though my parents were great and they were both college educated. They were supportive and pushing me to be something great.

Do you think they were worried about you?

I don't think they knew because I was pretty bright. Parents typically kind of associate their kids' social well-being with their grades. So I always had good grades even when I was way off to the left somewhere.

I had a cousin that gave me an Art Blakey tape. He gave it to me to see if my dad had some more records like this. So it was kind of a funny thing. I got into it. Something about Art Blakey just reminded me of N.W.A. and I was just like, Ah, this is dope!


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