Kamasi Washington: My 5 Favorite Albums of 2015
Kamasi Washington has had one helluva year.
After growing up in Los Angeles and working as a touring musician for the likes of Snoop Dogg, Lauren Hill and Raphael Saadiq, the 34-year-old saxophonist, bandleader and composer earned his first major recognition for his musical contributions to Kendrick Lamar’s massively hailed To Pimp A Butterfly.
That initial nod conveniently prefaced the release of his own magnificent debut album, The Epic, which we recently featured on our list of 40 favorite albums from 2015.
Released on Flying Lotus’ always innovative Brainfeeder label, the three-volume (and aptly named) epic is one of the most exciting and far-reaching jazz albums in recent memory, venerating the past and future of the vital American art form en route to boldly reclaim its perpetual relevancy.
After interviewing the young jazz giant the week The Epic first dropped back in May, I got the chance to catch up with Kamasi Washington this winter, at the tail end of his European tour, where we talked about his whirlwind year and his favorite albums of 2015.
How’s your year been? What’s happened to you since?
Man, it’s been crazy. We been touring since the end of July, and it’s been amazing. I think 95 percent of the shows have been sold out, the reception has been amazing.
Could you have expected such a strong reaction to your music?
As a musician, when you make your own music is kind of like exposing your soul, so it feels really good to have people appreciate it. It’s not why you do it — you do it because it’s in you and you have to get it out — but it definitely feels good.
What’s been your biggest highlight?
Meeting some of my heroes, and having them know about my music is pretty huge. I met Gary Bartz, and he bought my album. I got to talk to Christian McBride and Jason Moran. Kenny Garrett came to our show in New York, which was pretty incredible for me. I loved that guy so much growing up, so it was an amazing honor.
I heard The Epic just went Gold in Germany.
That was an incredible surprise. When we played there they presented us with a gold album and everything.
Back in May you talked about how you and the guys you grew up with have this collective mission to “remove jazz from the shelf of relics and make it new, unexpected and dangerous again.” Has that mentality changed or developed?
We’ve always just played the music that we played. People like to talk about “the state of jazz,” and the thought process that jazz was something that no one liked has always bothered us. Me and my friends never believed that, and since high school we’ve been itching to get out there and show people it’s cool. It’s a myth that people don’t like this, and they think they don’t like it because this myth is big.
So what is the true state of jazz in 2015?
This tour has been like a dream. We’ve played to seas of people, and its so energizing the’ve come for this music.
I think music is an expression of who we are, so as you see people’s music tastes changing, its a sign of the people changing. You look at the ’60s and see what’s happening at that time through the music. Music is always happening and there’s always been really cool jazz happening — it’s just that people weren’t necessarily looking for it. With people looking for it now, it’s kind of a sign that the general mindset is opening.
Your success is certainly a good indicator.
Jazz musicians should be inspired right now, because there’s a door, a lane, an opportunity where people are actually open to it. And they’re open to jazz musicians doing their music, not just redoing or remaking somebody else’s music. People are wide open right now. It’s a great opportunity and I’m excited to see what kind of music is going to come out of that.
So, are you ready to pick your five favorite records of the year?
This is really hard [laughs], but let’s do it.
1. Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp A Butterfly
My number one album from 2015, excluding my album of course [grins], would definitely have to be Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly.
That was such a huge album. And it helped open people’s ears to your album.
It opened people’s ears in general, just to listening to music that isn’t dumbed down, over-produced with that thinking that people can’t digest something that’s too complex. It’s a lush album, full of textures, colors, rhythms, lyrics… It’s the complete opposite of what I mentioned before — that mindset that people can’t appreciate music that has weight to it. It has so much weight, and people love it so much.
Throughout cultures and histories there have been so many different kind of music made in different ways. [Kendrick] helped prove it’s not how you’re making it, it’s what you’re saying. It’s what you’re expressing, not how you’re expressing it.
2. Thundercat: The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam
I know it’s really short, but Thundercat’s The Beyond is so beautiful. Even though it’s a short statement, it’s really powerful. He and [Flying] Lotus have the ability to do that — to say so much in a small package. I was listening to [Thundercat's 2011 album] The Golden Age of the Apocalypse and I was like, Holy cow, it’s only 30 minutes long? But it doesn’t feel like it. Lotus does the same thing. They can put so much into a minute and 45 seconds.
You think that could be your next challenge, Mister Triple-Album?
Oh, man… [laughing] My mind doesn’t work that way… I don’t know why either. We were all talking about that. It’s not like they’re compacting it; it just comes out that way. You finish listening to it, and it feels like you’ve been through the entire universe, but it’s only been two minutes.
3. Hiatus Kaiyote: Choose Your Weapon
I think Hiatus Kaiyote’s Choose Your Weapon is a great record. I saw them live when they were in L.A. and we kind of hung out afterwards. It’s amazing how music is traveling all around the world. It’s just really cool, that cultural exchange.
Like, they’re from Australia and they’ve captured this sound…. I hear their music, and I’m like, Wow, that sounds like something that could have been made over here. But at the same time, it has some things that couldn’t have been made here. They’ve got a very cool fusion going on. Especially in the U.S. we get a little isolated. It’s so cool that album has made so much of an impact in a place like Los Angeles, where I’m from.
4. Robert Glasper: Covered
I had to pick Robert Glasper’s album, Covered. Just because I’m such a Robert Glasper fan, and it was really cool to hear him back with his original trio, playing straight ahead jazz but in a very current way. He hasn’t made a record like that in a little while, so it was nostalgic for all of us.
Not that his style is not traditional or old, but with the Black Radio stuff he’d moved on to more R&B kind of sounds, and so it was fun hearing him take extended solos and kind of digging in on that level.
And the versions he did were all really interesting, since it’s all covers.
5. Snarky Puppy: Sylva
And then there’s that new Snarky Puppy album… Sylva. That was really awesome, with the full orchestra and all.
It was really inspiring for me, thinking how I might be able to take my own writing to a new level. I’ve composed for a string orchestra, but never a full orchestra, with horns and woodwinds and the different textures you can get. And their writing on it is amazing. It always is.
Awesome! So that’s the definitive ‘Kamasi Washington Best of 2015′ list?
[laughs] That’s as as definitive as you’re gonna get.
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