For Kamasi Washington, This is Just the Prologue

For our latest Digital Cover Story, the Los Angeles-based tenor saxophonist and bandleader discusses dancing, George Clinton, fatherhood and his no-wrong-notes mentality.

Music Features Kamasi Washington
For Kamasi Washington, This is Just the Prologue

Kamasi Washington has never made a dance record before. With Fearless Movement, that’s about to change, at least in terms of its conceptual framework. The Los Angeles-based tenor saxophonist, composer and bandleader, on albums like 2018’s Heaven & Earth and 2015’s The Epic, delved into cosmological motifs of grandiose proportions. Although Washington’s music hasn’t lost any of its celestial nature, Fearless Movement explores the simple act of dancing as a form of expression. Dancing is intrinsic to music itself, whether Washington makes a straight-up house record or continues pursuing spiritual jazz, like he does on his latest album.

Washington comes from a musical family; his aunt, Lula Washington, is a renowned and influential dancer. She would frequently babysit Kamasi and his brothers, who would end up spending days at her studio. It wasn’t until Kamasi got a bit older, though, that the magnitude of Lula’s dance career truly struck him. Lula worked with McCoy Tyner, the jazz pianist and composer who played in the John Coltrane Quartet, a musician whom Kamasi counts as one of his heroes. He had always respected Lula’s art, but it was at that particular moment that Kamasi realized the unbreakable connection between jazz and dance, something he was only subconsciously aware of as a child.

“When I was younger, I had this connection between highly improvisational and expressive music and dance, and, for whatever reason, generally, those things are split apart like they’re two different things,” Washington explains from his LA home via Zoom. “I’ve always wanted to explore that more: the idea of making music that I’m intentionally wanting people to move and to express [themselves] with.” So he set out with that goal in mind when working on Fearless Movement. He wanted to create something that he could imagine Lula and her dancers using in a performance; he wanted to create something in which the listener was a direct, active participant in the making of its meaning. “I felt like it would just be fun to make music that people wanted to join in on rather than just listen,” he continues. “That seemed fun to me, to have people release and let go. There is a sort of release and letting go when you allow yourself to dance. Even for people who aren’t dancers, there’s a similar thing.”

As adults, we’re often reluctant to truly let go and dance, out of a fear of other people judging us or thinking we look outright foolish. Children, though, usually have no inhibitions. That’s a realization that Washington witnessed himself when he recently became a father; to say the least, it’s a fairly significant life change that he has undergone in the time since his last proper album. In fact, you could say that his daughter, who is now just shy of two years old, has already become one of his collaborators; Akili Asha Washington wrote the melody on the aptly titled “Asha the First.” He recalls one day when she was sitting at the piano and toying around with various chords and phrases, at first, seemingly at random. Then she had an epiphany: If she played the same keys, then they would elicit the same sounds, but if she played up or down from that starting note, then it would sound different. Stunned by this discovery, she looked at her father, mouth agape, with utter joy. She was certain she was showing her father something that had never been documented in the history of the human race.

“Everything [children] do is new; every experience is a new experience,” Washington says. “And as we get older, we learn these comforts. We learn what’s safe. But that childlike musical energy is powerful. that freedom that children exude. I’m learning from her in that way. She’s not afraid to say anything. She’ll try anything, so she’ll play anything on piano. Nothing is wrong for her. There are just different versions of right.” To Washington, the significance of dance flourishes in that childlike sense of freedom, the will to cast aside any self-imposed hindrances and chase that moment of escape from the drudgery of modern existence. When he talks about his daughter, his enthusiasm is palpable. His face beams with delight any moment she comes up in our conversation. She taught him an invaluable lesson: There are no wrong notes. “There are no places that you can’t go,” Washington continues. “To me, that is the final frontier.”

Washington intended to start recording another album much sooner, but, understandably, becoming a parent will stall that process by a year or two. Even then, Fearless Movement wouldn’t be the record that it currently is had he not become a father beforehand. Such a consequential life chapter inevitably shapes everything you do, including your art. It’s a sentiment he bears in mind. “It’s a monumental experience to truly discover unconditional love, and it changes who you are,” he muses. “We have people that we care about and that we would put our lives in danger for, but it’s different, like this person is more important than me. That’s actually a beautiful state to be in to release you because, now, life isn’t about you. It changes the perspective that you see things. Music is such a reflection of who you are and how you see things, that change definitely affects how I make music.”

Now, Washington no longer identifies as a musician first and foremost. He considers himself a father first and an artist second. Musicianship is still integral to his self-perception, but it’s not the primary occupant anymore. “You go from having your identity being like, ‘I’m a musician,’ and then that takes a backseat,” he says. “Now I’m a father, and that transition was one that I wanted to do, but it took some courage on my part to let go, to be able to be comfortable with it and not be fearful that, ‘Oh, I’m losing something. I’m not going to be what I am.’ But I’m not going to let anxiety or worry take over. That’s part of what the album is about to me: living in your true, current self and not being afraid to change because, sometimes, it’s easier to hold on to what you are than to be what you want to be.” This is the impetus driving Fearless Movement, the notion of letting matters take their natural course and seeing what becomes of them.

Washington took that direction with the compositional side of the record. Although he still set out with the aim to make people dance, he didn’t want that concept to restrict where the music would go or what it would mean to other people. He refused to put an album centered on freedom into a proverbial box. “How I’m hearing music right now is in that space of fearlessness, which is letting it be what it wants to be,” he says. As far as maintaining his mission for making listeners want to dance, however, he focused on building these songs from a rhythmic foundation. He and his bandmates, including Tony Austin on drums, Miles Mosley on double bass and Brandon Coleman on keys, to name a few of them, would frequently start by deciding how the rhythm section would go. They’d then see how the rest of the tune would develop from there.

One of the most rhythmically driven tracks is “Asha the First,” which not only features Akili’s melody, but also Thundercat (AKA Stephen Bruner) on electric bass and twin rappers Taj and Ras Austin of Coast Contra—all of whom augment the track’s heavy syncopation. Washington and Thundercat have a long history together, from releasing 2004’s Young Jazz Giants with the latter’s brother, Ronald Bruner Jr., and Cameron Graves, to serving as key members of Kendrick Lamar’s backing band on 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly. With Ras and Taj, he “randomly found them on the internet” and became quickly enamored of “their flow and their whole style.” He had a chance encounter with them at the Hollywood Bowl, where they were performing.

“We had the song, and I wanted some youthful energy to it,” Washington recalls. “I thought it would be cool to have them rap over something that wasn’t a loop, and it’s like the music is just going. They’re rapping and flowing with the musicians in a way that I thought was really dope. It’s like the words and the music are really contrapuntal and interacting with each other.” And that’s exactly the effect that “Asha the First” pulls off. As Ras and Taj zigzag around frantic drums and a labyrinthine structure, they eventually find themselves back in the pocket, right alongside the hypnotic groove, locked in. It sounds like a group of musicians in a room responding to each other in real time, conversing and trading ideas. Like all 12 tracks on Fearless Movement, it sounds like a dance as much as it makes you want to dance yourself.

When I ask Kamasi Washington how he imagines these new songs will take shape onstage, he has a short but candid response: “I’m curious to see!”

Just as his music changes once it transitions from ideas in scattered notebooks to the recording studio, it typically metamorphoses into something completely different when it makes its way from the recording studio to the stage. It reflects the underlying ethos of Fearless Movement, where bursts of spontaneity and methodical planning go hand in hand. Washington describes himself as analytical and detailed when it comes to carving out song ideas. He admits he can be “pretty indecisive,” but he makes a great habit out of documenting any worthy musical idea that comes to him. His songs, though, exist in these three different forms: written, recorded and performed.

As far as his writing process goes, Washington likens his various ideas, whether they’re chords, melodies or rhythms, to seeds. “Sometimes it’s a lyric; sometimes it’s an instrumentation,” he explains. “These are all different types of little seeds, and I write them down all the time. I have books full of them. A lot of times when I’m writing music, I’m jotting down one of the seeds that just came to me, and then I’ll mess around with them and build from that until I can’t think of anything else to do with it.” Sometimes, it’ll take him years to finish a composition, adding more and more layers and segments until it seems like there are no further places to take it. At that point, he’ll show it to his bandmates. During this stage, Washington already has a solid idea of how he hears the song in his head, but he’s loath to show them his interpretation until he hears theirs first.

“I try to let the musicians give me their take on it before I give them mine in case they hear something that I like more than what I came up with,” he says with a laugh. “So what usually happens, I give it to them and I’m like, ‘Hey, play this. See what you think,’ and we’ll play around with it. Then I’ll show them ‘Well, this is what I was thinking of it as.’ Somewhere in that mix, the version that you hear is [on the] record.” It assumes a completely different form during a show, as well. For this tour, there will be another layer of novelty; DJ Battlecat will now be a regular member of Washington’s live band. Usually, they reserve Battlecat, who’s featured on early-album highlights like “Asha the First” and “Computer Love,” for special, outlier performances, but now he’s a part of the main crew. “He’s such a creative person,” Washington says of Battlecat. “I want him to be a driving force for this [tour], so I think it’s gonna be interesting and fun to see what he pulls out of this.”

One song Washington is especially excited to perform (and see what it turns into) is “Get Lit.” He feels like it has the potential to open up the most, the largest capacity for turning into something that’s wholly different from what we get on the record. Written by Ronald Bruner Jr. and featuring the legendary P-Funk mastermind George Clinton and rapper D Smoke, “Get Lit” might be the closest thing to a traditional pop song in Washington’s extensive repertoire. Still, it’s not pop in the sense of something you’d hear on, say, Top 40 radio, but there is a discernible structure to it, a rarity for an artist whose music typically sprawls out in countless directions at once like a subterranean fungal web. Ronald wrote the song, and Washington and his band were trying to determine what else it needed. By pure happenstance, he ran into Dr. Funkenstein himself at a visual art show.

“He’s an amazing visual artist,” Washington says of Clinton. “I had met him a few times before that, but we never got a chance to really talk. And as soon as I was talking to him, all I could think was, ‘Oh, he’d be dope for the song.’ We were talking about his art, and I’m trying to be cool.” Eventually, Washington mustered the courage to ask him, and Clinton had been officially recruited for “Get Lit.” Once he was on board, Washington decided he also wanted a rapper on the track to flesh things out. He was playing a show at the Hollywood Bowl when another auspicious moment occurred: D Smoke was there. As both a rapper and pianist, D Smoke felt like the perfect candidate for the job. “He’s got that extra musical flow,” Washington says. “And he did exactly that.”

On Fearless Movement alone, his cadre of collaborators remains as vast and boundless as Washington’s oeuvre itself. While he has always been open to working with fellow musicians, he had become accustomed to playing the sideman; but he’s a bandleader, too, through and through. It’s an early instance, Washington says, where he feels like an entire crew of artists are contributing to his own work and serving his own vision. On this record, he’s the nucleus around which the other band members orbit like electrons. “These are all master musicians,” he says. “They have a whole world of music within them. I’m learning about the way they see music, and I’m also learning and seeing new spaces within my own music, like Ras and Taj rapping over “Asha the First” opened my eyes to different rhythmic possibilities of the music that I make.”

Even for such a seasoned, experienced musician who has worked with sundry icons, the surreal nature of it hasn’t faded, especially in the case of George Clinton. He remembers listening to P-Funk and Mothership Connection at 13 years old, never thinking that Clinton himself would sing on one of his own songs. Washington still describes it as a “don’t pinch me” moment, and that impact seized his bandmates, too. “I remember we said he was gonna come into the studio. We just sat there and nobody said anything,” he says, laughing at the memory of mentally preparing for Clinton’s grand arrival. “I was just sitting there quietly like, ‘Nobody do anything that’s gonna tilt the weight in any direction. We’re gonna just sit here quietly until he comes.’”

Although Fearless Movement primarily centers Washington’s artistic pursuits, he enjoys covering other people’s songs, and there are a small handful on the album’s tracklist. “Prologue” is originally by the Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla, and “Computer Love” was written by the Ohio funk band Zapp. By interpreting others’ work, though, Washington gains a deeper sense of what his personal style is. Whereas previous records like Heaven & Earth and The Epic were mostly written by Washington himself, he says Fearless Movement is split roughly half and half between covers and originals. As he puts it, he has been “reading the Kamasi book for a long time!” The desire to switch it up a bit only seems natural.

“It’s different than working on someone else’s record; that’s their vision because that’s more like me figuring out what they want,” he clarifies. “And this is more like me seeing something they have, internalizing it and creating a new reality out of it. It helped me discover new things and find new musical realities within myself.” He points to a song like “Together,” featuring BJ the Chicago Kid, one of the first tunes that emerged during the writing process. It was written by Ryan Porter, and Porter’s composition inspired Washington to pen the lyrics for what he considers his first true love song. Without Porter’s instrumentation, the heartfelt essence of “Together” might not exist. Washington likens it to interstellar travel: “I can reach a planet that maybe my ship wouldn’t be able to reach by itself.”

As trite as it may sound, Washington’s music is, by and large, about the journey. Yes, it’s a hackneyed saying, but in this case, the notion applies because it’s truthful. Fearless Movement ends with “Prologue,” and that sequencing is far from coincidental. Closing your album with a track that signifies a new beginning is an unequivocal statement, which is precisely what Washington wanted to convey. “The end is usually the beginning,” he says. “We go through this journey, and the journey is not heading toward the end. The journey’s heading toward the beginning. That’s how I’m looking at where I’m at now: I had to have a journey to get to my new journey.”

What does that journey look like for Kamasi Washington? “It just started! I don’t really know where these new songs are gonna take us,” he asserts. “This album was a journey of release, to get to the place where I can discover.” With this record, he wanted to embody the fearlessness of embarking on a trek whose endpoint is a total mystery and, ultimately, secondary to the internal odyssey that preceded it. Even if Washington anchors his work in a particular subject, whether that be dancing, discovery or deliverance, there’s no telling where he’ll take us. This is only the prologue, after all.

Grant Sharples is a writer, journalist and critic. He writes the Best New Indie column at UPROXX. His work has also appeared in Interview, Pitchfork, Stereogum, The Ringer, Los Angeles Review of Books and other publications. He lives in Kansas City.

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