We’ve Got A File On You: Kamasi Washington

Vincent Haycock

We’ve Got A File On You: Kamasi Washington

Vincent Haycock

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

It’s possible to divide 21st century jazz into two eras: pre- and post-The Epic. Kamasi Washington’s three-hour triple LP, for all intents and purposes his debut (though, as you’ll read below, he’d been around for a decade before it was released), created a sensation upon its release in 2015. He and his band went from playing jazz clubs to theaters to festivals — I saw them at New York’s Blue Note (capacity: 250), and two years later they were opening for alt-J at Forest Hills Stadium (capacity: 13,000). His expansive vision of spiritual jazz — which built on the early ’70s work of Pharoah Sanders, adding strings, a choir, Thundercat’s liquid fretless bass, and splashes of synth — appealed to listeners raised on hip-hop and R&B without making any concessions. This was not crossover music; it was defiantly itself, and reached people who had no idea it was what they’d been looking for.

In the last decade, Washington has kept moving forward, never putting a foot wrong. He’s released an EP and an album on his own, composed the score for the Netflix documentary Becoming (about Michelle Obama), and formed the supergroup Dinner Party with alto saxophonist and producer Terrace Martin, keyboardist Robert Glasper, and producer/beatmaker 9th Wonder. Now, he’s about to release his third album, Fearless Movement, a nearly 90-minute double disc that expands his sound to include more electronics and groove than ever. It also features guest appearances from André 3000, George Clinton, D Smoke, BJ The Chicago Kid, Thundercat, and more.

In a wide-ranging and fascinating Zoom call, I talked to Washington about the new album; his time as a student of jazz legends like George Duke and Gerald Wilson; playing in Snoop Dogg’s live band; covering Metallica; doing studio work for Earth, Wind & Fire vocalist Philip Bailey and St. Vincent; hearing his own music covered by Rodrigo y Gabriela; and more.

Fearless Movement (2024)

It’s been six years since Heaven And Earth, and obviously you were on the road and did other things in that time, but what was the writing and recording process for this record? Like, when did you actually start, or did you just kind of pile up music one piece at a time until you were like, all right, we have enough for an album. How does it work for you?

KAMASI WASHINGTON: We started working on this record in 2022. Some of these songs I wrote during the pandemic and stuff like that. So I was already — even before that, I was already kind of writing and kind of working towards going to an album. And then, you know, the sky fell. But then, we started this record in 2022. And so for me, I try to not come into [the recording process] with too many preconceived notions, just kind of songs, and see what it feels like I’m drawn to. And so, in this record, one of the songs that really was a pretty big influential “OK, I like this direction” piece was actually “Prologue.” That song, it felt like that direction, that kind of like highly rhythmic — I felt like rhythm was kind of the thing I’m going to get into on this record.

The new music feels a lot more — there’s more electronics and it feels more “produced” than anything that you’ve done before on your own records. I mean, on “Road To Self” you’re even playing through effects pedals and stuff. So is that when you kind of found yourself moving in that direction, and how has that changed the way you write or the way you structure a solo or something?

WASHINGTON: I mean, everything is still pretty live, but yeah, I hear what you’re saying, there’s definitely more synth, there’s more electronics, there’s more textures on that level on this record. And, you know, it’s just kind of how it pulled us; the music was just pulling in that direction. I mean, we recorded other stuff that wasn’t like that, but that just didn’t feel like where I wanted to go. The only reason [behind it] is, we started going there, and I liked it. And so we kept going in that direction, you know? Other than “Dream State” — which we created that in the moment, that’s an improvisation, it wasn’t like, pre-written — most of the time I come in with songs that are already kind of written, and we’re more discovering them than writing them in the studio, per se.

Yeah, I wanted to ask you about “Dream State”…

WASHINGTON: I met up with André and recorded some stuff for him, and he pretty much offered, you know, if I wanted him on something, he was down to work on some music. And so I had a couple of songs kind of already pre-written that we were thinking about having him — I didn’t know what he wanted to do. I didn’t know if he wanted to rap or play flutes or what. So I just had a few songs already pre-ready for him. And when he got to the studio, he pulled out this whole arsenal of flutes, and every time he showed us one of the flutes, he was playing all this cool stuff. And [keyboardist] Brandon Coleman was like, “Man, we should just create something right now.” And I was like, “Yeah, you’re right. We should just create something right now in this moment,” because it just felt like that’s what it should be, you know?

The thing with “Dream State” is, it makes me wonder about a lot of music that’s coming out recently, like his record, Carlos Niño’s stuff — and I know Carlos is on this album — and Shabaka Hutchings’ new record. Why do you think so many artists are gravitating towards sort of ambient, New Agey music lately? And what’s the attraction for you? Why are you being pulled in that direction? Do you think there’s just something going on with artists your age? You know, that you’re in a life space where that’s appealing, or what?

WASHINGTON: I think everybody you kind of mentioned right now have kind of already been in that [space], you know, I have songs like “Seven Prayers” on The Epic and, you know, that space of freeform music, music that really is created in the moment, and it has an aesthetic that takes you to a place that feels like there are no walls, you know what I mean? And I think that maybe it’s coming out of being locked up for a couple of years in the pandemic and people coming out of it and wanting to just feel free, and maybe just feeling tugged and pulled by society one direction or the other is making people want to have a feeling of weightlessness or feeling like there’s no barriers, there’s no confines to what you’re doing. I think that style of music has this kind of freeing feel to it that I think a lot of people maybe are searching for right now. Beyond the physical, psychologically and emotionally as well.

Scoring The Michelle Obama Documentary Becoming (2020)

How did you get the job of scoring the documentary Becoming, and how much contact did you have with the Obamas throughout that process? And is it weird to know that the president and his wife listen to your music?

WASHINGTON: It was definitely surreal to — the director [Nadia Hallgren], she called me to work on that project. And when I got that call, it felt like that’s just an important story. Like, regardless of how you feel about the politics, it was a significant moment in time, Barack Obama’s presidency and Michelle Obama’s time in the White House with him. And so to tell that story — for me, when you write a score to a film, you’re kind of putting the frame on a picture, you know? So to be able to frame that story, it felt really important. I never really talked to them directly, but I did get notes from them, which was kind of trippy, you know what I mean? To have Michelle Obama and Barack Obama, like, giving notes. And so I was honored, and it felt like the process for me was — it was such a personal story, you know? So I was trying to treat it almost like I was writing music that they were hearing in those moments as they were living them, which was a fun journey, kinda took me to some different places. Took me on a bit of an almost Motown-ish journey, with some other influences as well.

Early Independent Albums Young Jazz Giants (2004), Live At 5th Street Dick’s (2005), The Proclamation (2007), And Light Of The World (2008)

You released several albums independently before The Epic. Any chance any of those will ever be reissued? And what do you think of those records now?

WASHINGTON: Yeah. I thought about maybe doing a vinyl run of some of those records. It’s nostalgic when I listen to it. Like, I did a record — the first thing I ever did, when I was on the road with Snoop, I made some money, so I went and bought a computer and some recording equipment and, like, literally I took it from the store to this gig we had at 5th Street Dick’s and recorded the gig the same day I bought the stuff, you know? I later built a studio up in my dad’s garage and it’s actually — all the equipment is still there. And so I did a few records in his garage, and that was the place where we recorded a lot of music. Even like Golden Age Of Apocalypse, Thundercat’s first record, a lot of that was recorded in my dad’s garage with that stuff. And some of Brandon Coleman’s first record and Miles [Mosley]’s record, a lot of stuff. A lot of Ryan Porter’s records we recorded there. And so, yeah, I mean, I think about that sometimes, [but] my sights are usually forward. I don’t put a lot of thought into pushing out the stuff that we did in the past. But I think it’s reasonable for me to make it available. You know, I just have to do it. I will at some point.

Playing On George Duke’s Last Three Albums (2008-2013)

You worked with George Duke on his last three albums. What was that like? What did you learn from him? Because I’ve talked to Thundercat about him a little bit, too, and I feel like George Duke doesn’t get his due anymore.

WASHINGTON: As high regard as he is kept in, it could still be higher. I mean, George is one of the greatest. And you know, when you work with him, it’s just like working with a grand master instrumentalist on piano and every type of keyboard you can imagine, a grand master arranger and producer and engineer and everything else, and also just a really warm spirit. You get around George and it just feels like the sun must be shining outside or something, you know? And he’s just a really amazing human being. And yeah, when we worked on those records, we would come in, and he had a sound and an idea he wanted, and he was very good at explaining it to us and getting that out of us. And it was an honor, it was real fun. He’s also very, like, inviting for you to be able to put yourself on the records. And I was super honored that he called me, you know what I mean? So I was on cloud nine.

Playing In The Gerald Wilson Orchestra (2005-2011)

You were also part of the Gerald Wilson Orchestra for several years. What did you learn there that you’ve used when arranging your own music? Because you frequently have large ensembles like strings and choirs and stuff.

WASHINGTON: Yeah, Gerald was one of my greatest mentors. I learned a lot from Gerald Wilson. I played with him for a long time, and it was like — when I went to UCLA, he was a professor there. And I had another friend named Isaac Smith, who played in his band. And I was already a huge Gerald Wilson fan from high school, since before that. And we were walking down a hallway, and Gerald was walking the opposite direction. And Isaac told him, “Hey, man, you should get Kamasi to play with you sometime. He loves your music.” And he was like, “Oh, I need a saxophone player tomorrow!” It was something like that, right? Like, real fast.

And I went and played for Gerald. And he liked my playing, so he invited me to come record with him, and then recording with him, he wanted me to learn a song called “Jeri” that he wrote for his daughter. And so I went to his house, and I was like, “Man, Gerald, I grew up like two blocks down the road right here.” And he was like, “Oh, man, I used to hear you practicing!” Because I used to practice his music. I just played to his records and stuff. But he had gotten almost blind in his later years, and he said he couldn’t figure out exactly where my house was. But he said he used to hear me practicing out my window. I must’ve tripped him out. There’s some saxophone player playing his music, and he could hear it in the in the street.

But yeah, he taught me a lot. Musically, he was definitely super-advanced harmonically, and just the denseness of his orchestrations — he was using six-, seven-, eight-part, sometimes even more than that harmony, in a time when most people were only using three- and four-part harmony. You know, not very many people even now are writing music with as much harmonic density as Gerald Wilson. So I learned a lot just harmonically and, like, my comfortability with dissonance and with polychordal stacks.

And then talking to him was like having a portal to the invention of jazz. You know what I mean? Because he knew Duke Ellington, he wrote for Duke Ellington, he wrote for Ella Fitzgerald, he wrote for Billie Holiday, he wrote for Count Basie. He played in Jimmie Lunceford’s band. Eric Dolphy used to babysit his kids. John Coltrane would come pick him up from the airport when he went to New York. He played in Dizzy Gillespie’s bands, he knew Dizzy, he knew Bird, they were his personal friends. And so it really brought the world of music that I was listening to that could have felt far from me and made it like really a part of me, you know?

And I learned a lot about how to treat the musicians in my band, because Gerald was always so good to the musicians in the band. I learned a lot about harmony. I learned a lot about fearlessness. He was a very fearless musician. And he was never satisfied with what he had already. He was in his nineties and I would call him up. He’d be like, “Hey, Kamasi, you gotta come to the house, man. I got this new stuff, ain’t nobody never heard nothing like this.” I mean, ninety-some years old, he’s still trying to be ahead of the pack. That’s amazing. So I learned a lot from from Gerald Wilson.

Touring In Snoop Dogg’s Band (Early 2000s)

You were part of Snoop’s touring band for a couple of years. Were there songs that you felt really let the band show off, either in terms of solo spots or in terms of how you arranged the music? On a musical level, what was it like?

WASHINGTON: On a musical level, we would jam out at soundcheck. [But] even though the band was mostly jazz musicians, we didn’t really get into a lot of that type of thing. We were kind of — it was angled much more at, like, playing Snoop’s music, in that style. It wasn’t like his version of, like, “Oh, I want to have a jazzy kind of band.” It was more like a Parliament-Funkadelic type band, but we didn’t have the solos and stuff like that, as much like Parliament.

I remember a couple of shows where he really let us open up like that, but what we would do more often was kind of create songs on stage and create music. And he would play songs backstage, like there was one time we were all backstage — and our dressing room was like a party every night, so there was always music playing. And so this one particular night, before the show… he just had Rick James’ “Bustin’ Out” just on repeat, like, the whole time. And none of us really caught on. We thought it was weird, but we just didn’t think anything of it, you know? And so we walk out on stage, we had our own little intro already set, that we had already rehearsed and everything. And you know, Snoop would normally come out and say, “What’s my motherfucking name?” And then we would go right into that song. And instead of saying that he walked out, and he says, and we’re in front of like 60,000 people. He says, “Well, all right you squares.” And we were like, what’s that mean? And then he said it again. “Well all right, you squares.” And we were all — none of us knew what he was talking about.

In the beginning of “Bustin’ Out,” Rick James says that. He says “Well, all right you squares,” and then this trombone part comes in. And luckily, Isaac Smith, the same guy that introduced me to Gerald Wilson, he got it. And he said it one more time, and we hadn’t talked about what key, we hadn’t talked about the arrangement or nothin’. No one had said a word about playing that song. Nobody said anything to each other. And Isaac just came in and started playing that trombone part, and the whole band just spilled right into the song.

So Snoop would do stuff like that. He would just start songs that that we hadn’t talked about. That was more like how he was leaning on our more jazz sensibilities — you just never knew what he was going to want to play. And he might create a song, he might just start singing a hook. And we had to just create a song around that, that he just created in that moment, you know? But other than that, we were trying to get deep, deep, deep into the funk. It was all about making that music feel like that G-funk.

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His Post-The Epic Glow-Up (2015 And Beyond)

I saw you play the Blue Note in 2015, which holds like 200 people, and the next time you came through New York you were at Webster Hall, which holds like 1,500 people, and then I saw you at Forest Hills Stadium opening for alt-J and there were thousands of people there. What did it feel like in those first couple of years, to see the crowds just getting bigger and bigger?

WASHINGTON: Yeah, it felt surreal. I mean, I’ve been making music my whole life, and I played a lot of big stages with other artists, and I always had my own music that I believed in, but you just never know if it’s ever going to basically see the light of day. You just never know if that opportunity will ever come to you. So for me, it was like something that I’d believed in for years and years and years kind of coming to fruition, you know. And so as the stages got bigger and the crowds got bigger and the reality that, like, what we always said — that this music that we were making, it wasn’t music that that could only be listened to by people who were quote-unquote jazz fans. It was a universal music that had a place everywhere, and it just felt that way. And it felt more and more that way as we traveled and got to play and, you know, it felt good. It felt like we were speaking to the people and giving them something that they were looking for, [and] at the same time, something that was truly in our hearts.

Covering Metallica’s “My Friend Of Misery” (2021)

How did you get the invitation to cover Metallica’s “My Friend Of Misery” [for The Metallica Blacklist]? Because I know Lars Ulrich knows jazz to a certain degree. Like, literally Dexter Gordon was his godfather in Denmark. So did the invite come straight from him or what was the deal?

WASHINGTON: I don’t know exactly. I mean, they contacted us and they invited us, and I’m not sure how that conversation went amongst them, but yeah, I was pleasantly surprised when I got that invite. It just happened that one of the guys I grew up with playing music my whole life, Cameron [Graves], was really into metal, had his own metal bands and stuff like that. So I was pretty familiar with that music and I thought, “Aw, that’s gonna be a fun thing to do.” And “My Friend Of Misery” is one of those songs that not a lot of people talk about on that record, that I always loved. So it was like, perfect.

Hearing you on Cameron’s records is so interesting, because his music is jazz, but it’s so heavy.

WASHINGTON: Well, he’s all up in there, you know, all over there. I mean with like Slipknot and Meshuggah and all that, that’s his world. I love his records. I love his music. It’s fun. And it’s different. I feel like Cameron is like, he’s from a whole ‘nother world.

Recording With Earth, Wind & Fire’s Philip Bailey (2019)

You were on Philip Bailey’s album Love Will Find A Way — what was that like, working with him? It seems like that album took several years to come together.

WASHINGTON: Yeah. I wasn’t there for the whole creation of the whole record, I was kind of just there for my part. I’m a huge Philip Bailey fan, and it was funny when I linked up with him. It was like a weird — like a revelation. We were in New Orleans. And so he comes backstage, and I — you know, in my mind, this is Philip Bailey, Earth, Wind & Fire, like this. I’m a huge fan, and he sees my dad and he’s like, “Oh, hey, Ricky.” And my dad’s like, “You remember Philip, right? We went to church together.” And I had like a flashback of me being a kid. I was like, Oh yeah, that was you. We went to the same church when I was a kid, and I was like, I remembered seeing him at church and I just didn’t associate him, you know? I didn’t associate them as being the same person. So that was like a kind of revelation. And then, of course, that song [“Sacred Sounds”] is awesome. Robert Glasper, I believe, wrote it, and it was fun. It was fun to work with him. He’s an icon — amazing, incredible musician, and a great, great person.

Guesting On St. Vincent’s “Pills” (2017)

You’re on the song “Pills” from St. Vincent’s album MASSEDUCTION — when you’re doing something like that, where it’s just a little solo at the end of a track, how much work goes into that? How many takes, how much back-and-forth between you and the artist or you and the producer?

WASHINGTON: It’s different for different artists, you know? St. Vincent, I remember it going pretty fast. I took a couple of takes, and she — basically what it comes down to is, the artist’s or whoever’s project it is, they have a vision. And so it basically takes however long it takes for me to understand what they’re looking for and to give them what that is, you know? And sometimes they’re just looking for my response to their music. And in that case, it’s going to go really fast. Sometimes they’re looking for something more specific. And then it’s more about me kind of trying to figure out what that is.

So it varies from artist to artist. If I remember correctly, she had just built her studio, and I remember coming down there, and it might have been, like, two takes because I was like [sings musical phrase], and she was like, “Yeah, I got it.” Oh, okay. And I think the rest of the time, we were just kind of chilling while she was playing me the rest of the record and talking about music.

“Street Fighter Mas” Covered By Rodrigo y Gabriela (2021)

Your composition “Street Fighter Mas” was covered by the guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela. Did you hear the track? What was your reaction?

WASHINGTON: Yeah, I did, I did. I loved it. It’s fun to have someone interpret your music and they kinda take it somewhere else. It was fun.

Fearless Movement is out 5/3 on Shoto Mas/Young.

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