Every now and then, popular culture is gifted with music that it can hold up for glory; music that speaks to the spirit of its moment through its own essence; music, that though unblinkingly contextual, will stand as a timeless imperative for ages to come. In 2015, LA saxophonist-composer, Kamasi Washington, had a crucial part to play in two such monuments: Kendrick Lamar’s coups d’état, To Pimp A Butterfly, and his own world-stopping debut The Epic. It’s by now obvious that the sheer power of the record, its spectrum-defying celebration of jazz at its most maximally spiritual tenor, is impossible to overstate. We were lucky enough to speak to the man himself – and here, he lets you in on his majestic ways.
First of all, congrats on the gorgeously enormous feat that is The Epic. How do you feel about the success of the album?
Thanks so much! I wanted people to get it and it’s great to know that many of them have. It’s nice to have people still so excited about it.
Were you ever apprehensive about putting out the project in its three-hour-long entirety?
Not really. You see, when Flying Lotus asked me to join Brainfeeder, he said I could make whatever records I wanted to make. He gave me this feeling of being really free. That’s why I could record with a 10-piece band made up of guys I grew up with, from a collective called West Coast Get Down. So in December of 2011, we locked ourselves in a studio, we booked out and recorded every single day. I walked out with 45 songs!
And from there, you whittled them down to 17.
Yes. They were all good but I wanted to shrink them down to 17 that really captured the vision that I had when I was making the record. This 17 was exactly the way that I wanted them to be. I listened to them every day as I was writing the string and choir arrangements, and I started having these crazy dreams about this old warrior standing on an elevation above the gates of this village whose inhabitants just trained all day to overcome him. That’s when I realised that this was the album. Every song on the record has a part of this story. That’s why I called it The Epic – it’s the story.
What would you say to people who might feel intimidated by the sheer amount of music on The Epic?
I think that so much in society has been small, itty bits for so long. People are ready for something bigger. The notion of people having shorter attention spans isn’t really true, to me. I think people are worn out with the smaller tidbits. I’ve known the musicians on The Epic since we were babies so I wanted the album to be a representation of who we were and how we’ve grown up together. I didn’t try to make it long, but I didn’t try to make it short either.
Even if it might not have been have been a conscious intention before, would you say that “Changing Of The Guard” and “The Next Step” are signals for a new dawn in jazz music?
Yes, I grew up listening to musicians from the ’70s, musicians from my dad’s generation. There are so many fantastic musicians in LA who’ve never gotten the recognition due to them. The same goes for a lot of great musicians from my generation. So I intended “Changing Of The Guard” to be an homage to them, the new jazz vanguard, the new champions of music.
On that note, you were involved with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, the album unanimously hailed as 2015’s Album of the Year. What that experience like?
It was great. Initially I was just supposed to work on the final song “Mortal Man” where Kendrick interviews Tupac. But when Kendrick and some other producers heard parts of The Epic, they wanted me to do more than that. I ended up working on five songs. Unlike a lot of other artists, Kendrick is very, very hands-on. He was there in the studio every time I was there. He’s also very open. I was really surprised by how much he allowed Lotus and the other musicians to pour their essence into his album. He’s a real artist. He speaks to the purest nature of music – it’s hard not to be influenced by him.
Lastly, when all is said and done, how do you want your music to relate to people?
When I get together with those guys to play, all that history between us translates into something else. I feel like I can go further with them than with anyone else. I have this confidence that wherever I want to go, they’ll be there. All my emotions just come rushing out of me – I can’t control it. It’s the ultimate level of communication, of expression. I think we’re due for a spiritual healing and I’d like for all music, not just mine, to be there for the people that need it.