Kamasi Washington on Kendrick, Ryan Adams and the best year of his life

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Kamasi Washington is having the best 12 months of his life.

"This has been the year that I've dreamed about my whole life and I've been playing music since I was three," the 34-year-old saxophonist says down the line from his home in Los Angeles.

"The ultimate goal for most musicians is to be able to have the world acknowledge you and accept you and allow you to express yourself and travel to all parts of the globe doing that. It's pretty much like a dream come true right now."

Washington has made his living as a musician for years and has played with some of the best artists around. Even if you don't know him by name, you have probably heard or seen him playing with artists like Ryan Adams, Snoop Dogg, Chaka Khan, Flying Lotus and, most recently, Kendrick Lamar.



But 2015 saw him release The Epic, an ambitious three hour journey through the world of free jazz that had critics falling over themselves with praise. Washington hadn't intended on making such a dense album, but there was no end to the creativity once he started writing.

"I didn't necessarily intend for it to be a triple album. When Flying Lotus asked me to make a record for Brainfeeder, I reached out to a bunch of musicians who are part of a collective that I've grown up with and basically everyone I asked to record with me asked me to record with them.

"So we ended up deciding to lock ourselves away for a whole month in December of 2011. In that, we ended up with a crazy amount of music. We worked on eight different projects and ended up with 190 songs total. I ended up with 45 songs.

"While I was working on those songs I came to the conclusion that those 17 songs that are on The Epic were one album, one musical statement."

New York, New York

One of Washington's first big session jobs was on Ryan Adams' 2001 record Gold. Remember the saxophone solo that closes 'New York, New York'? That was him.


"There were two solos happening at the same time," Washington recalls. "I remember, I didn't do that on purpose. I did two takes, and somehow they both played at the same time and they were like 'Oh, that sounds cool! Let's keep it like that!'

"It sounds like I did it on purpose, but I didn't. Even hearing it, I was like 'Oh wow, that's cool!'."

Learning hip hop from Snoop

"Hip hop was the soundtrack to my neighbourhood, especially West Coast," Washington says of his relationship with the genre. "I didn't start studying it musically; I just listened to hip hop socially while my musical studies were more jazz and European classical music.

"My first gig was with Snoop Dogg and I started to understand the depths of their musical philosophies. It really forced me to look at it not like 'Oh I like that song, we rock out to it', but to put my musician ears to that music and absorb it with more in depth attention."

Learning is of huge importance to Washington. He gets something new out of every collaboration he embarks on. And he means every collaboration.

"When I'm playing my own music, I'm teaching. When I'm playing with anyone – whether it be Stanley Clark, Flying Lotus or my little niece – when I'm playing their music, I'm learning.

"I try not to buy into the superiority thing. Music is self-expression. Stanley Clark is a hero, so I'm a bit star struck when I play with him, so there's a little bit of a difference between that or Lotus, who I knew before he was big. But I give them the same musical respect. There's a reverence that I give to anyone who's my elder, I give them a boost of reverence. But the respect I give to everyone."

Kendrick Lamar has changed the game

Kamasi Washington's playing is all over Kendrick Lamar's groundbreaking 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly. But being so intrinsic to the sound of the album has not affected his appreciation for the music and the power of the messages contained within.

"I think it's changed things for everybody. I think Kendrick made a genre defining album. It's one of those things that, you'll look back in history and it's a movement changer.

"I think what he did is dispel this myth that people of this generation aren't smart enough to be able to enjoy high calibre music. If you look at To Pimp A Butterfly, it's one of the most lush albums I've ever heard from any genre, from any era, from any person. Melodically, rhymically, structurally, let alone lyrically what he's doing on top of it. There's so much to chew on through that album.


"The notion that people need something that's simple, something that doesn't require a lot of thought, he completely destroyed that idea."

He believes that the success of Lamar's record is proof that young music lovers are far more musically mature than older generations give them credit for.

"Their capacity for understanding is higher than it's ever been," he says. "To comprehend a record like Kendrick Lamar's record you have to have a pretty vast knowledge of music. There are probably more music heads now than there have ever been, because it's easier now.

"When I was coming up, if you had 1,000 records that meant music was your thing. Nowadays every kid has access to hundreds of thousands of records. Millions of records. That changes the scope of what society is.

"What Kendrick did is shine a light on that. It opened the doors for me and eventually it's going to open the doors for music in general."