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Take a look at this weekend’s lineup for The Meadows, the inaugural fall festival from Founders Entertainment – the organizers behind New York’s annual summer festival, Governors Ball – and you may spot a name that stands out from among the list of en-vogue indie, electro-pop, hip-hop, folk, and R&B acts: Kamasi Washington.
For the casual music listener, Washington has gained notoriety in recent years for being one of the musical virtuosos that shaped the sound on Kendrick Lamar’s thunderous, unforgettable 2015 hip hop record, “To Pimp A Butterfly” and its 2016 successor “Untitled Unmastered.”
But don’t be mistaken, Washington may be associated with hip hop, but he’s a jazz artist through and through.
Festivals don’t usually feature jazz. For millennial audiences raised on indie rock and hip-hop, jazz reeks of the museum. And yet, this year, Washington and his ten-piece band The Next Step have made their way onto most of the big festival bills, including Bumbershoot, Pitchfork, Glastonbury, Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, and Coachella. This Saturday, Washington and company will be in Queens sandwiched between indietronica band Miami Horror and reggae artist Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley.
At a festival featuring Kanye West, Chance the Rapper, and The Weeknd – three of the hottest names in music right now – this may sound blasphemous: If there’s one performance you hear the entire weekend, and I would venture to say this year, make it Washington’s.
“Genres don’t mean much to me. There are no hardline distinctions between two styles.” – Washington, The Guardian, 2015
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Washington and his LA jazz compatriots and fellow Lamar performers Terrace Martin and Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner have lately been credited with resurrecting or “saving” jazz. That may be an overstatement – jazz never went anywhere – but Washington is certainly the most exciting player to enter the fold in some time.
His music is at once grand, thrilling, challenging, and fun. Perhaps it comes from spending his twenties touring and recording with the likes of Snoop Dogg, Lauryn Hill, and Mos Def, but his music can’t be categorized. Like John Coltrane and Miles Davis filtered through an orchestra with dashes of funk, classical, gospel, and the best excesses of fusion and progressive rock, his music is a cascade of sound that overwhelms.
Go listen to Washington’s 2015 solo debut, The Epic, a 175-minute 17-song literal epic, cut during a legendary 1-month recording session that Washington has said cost him his “whole life savings.” There’s nothing like it around today.
“I’ve had experiences where people say, ‘I hated jazz before I heard you guys! … I’m like, ‘You didn’t hate jazz before you heard us, you hated the idea of jazz,’” Washington, Pitchfork, 2015.
- Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella
Don’t bother with the excuse that you don’t like jazz.
It’s my belief that a lot of people, young and old, don’t listen to jazz because the history of it is intimidating. People feel as though they’ve entered a museum where someone is going to pop out and quiz you on the exhibits right after you walk in.
Forget about that – Washington’s music is steeped in history, but it doesn’t require you to know it. In fact, he could care less. When Pitchfork asked him about people understanding “The Epic“, he dismissed the notion.
“The fact of the matter is that nobody understands what John Coltrane is doing except John Coltrane. And maybe not even him. So we’re all experiencing it on this subconscious level,” Washington said.
That’s the beauty of jazz – and also why I think so many people gravitate to the many variations of electronic dance music – it doesn’t require you to analyze, think, or explain. It asks you simply to experience it.
Where electronic dance music does so in ways that are mostly pre-scripted, forcing the audience member to focus on his or her own personal experience through dance, Washington asks you to make a visceral connection with him and his band.
“I treat each show just like a moment in time. Let’s capture this particular moment.” – Washington, Rolling Stone, 2016
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Kanye West is a compelling and dynamic performer, but what Washington and his ilk offer is the opportunity for something utterly unique.
Washington is likely to play many cuts off “The Epic,” but you truly don’t know what he or any of his bandmates are going to play. Washington has said the “excitement of music” for him is the unknown, pushing him to tweak arrangements until his songs become “almost unrecognizable.”
Further than that, every member of The Next Step, which consists of two drummers, two upright bass players, a keyboardist, three horn players, a pianist, and a vocalist, is an expert player in his or her own right and most have extensive solo repertoires. As with most collectives in a music as ego-driven as jazz, there will be plenty of material and solos from everyone.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Washington described his approach to touring as creating concerts “custom-made” to the location. In the hours before a performance, he walks the city, thinking about the history or the culture, and feeling out the vibe.
Here’s how he described playing in the historic city ofNîmes in southern France:
There was like an impressionist French vibe. We played “Clair de Lune” and we end up playing the song in a very romantic kind of way, which is not how we normally do it. Going way out and going way avant-garde and abstract is kind of like home base for us. Kind of going romantic and soft and, like, really subtle was a bit different for us, you know?
In a city with a culture and history as rich and deep as New York City – and Queens specifically – what will Washington come up with?
Here are Washington’s remaining tour dates for the year:
- Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella
October 7 – San Diego, CA
October 8 – Costa Mesa, CA
November 6 – Los Angeles, CA
November 12-13 – Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival, Los Angeles, WA
December 2 – Seattle, WA