TIDAL 10 – JAZZ: THE KAMASI EFFECT
To celebrate the close of this remarkable decade in music, we’ve launched an
article series called the TIDAL 10 – that’s 10 essays reflecting on 10 movements that have helped to define the past 10 years in 10 diverse genres. The pieces will appear throughout December, and cover a striking range of music, from Chicago drill to crossover classical, Americana to the R&B avant-garde. Enjoy. – Evan Haga, Editor, TIDAL Read
The decade was still young when, in February 2011, pianist Vijay Iyer self-effacingly described himself as “jazz famous, not famous famous.” Now, as it closes, at least one jazz musician has achieved fame fame.
Kamasi Washington, a 38-year-old dashiki-clad bear of a tenor saxophonist, erupted out of Los Angeles in spring 2015 with the aptly titled The Epic. Jazz is already uncommercial; a three-disc, nearly three-hour jazz album featuring a 32-piece orchestra and 20-voice choir would seem to be a fiasco in the making. Instead, it elevated Washington to star status. The Epic’s dense but ultimately tradition-bound jazz touched something in its audiences. Washington headlined the major jazz festivals and toured to sellout crowds. By 2019 he’d released two more successful recordings and played Bonnaroo, Coachella and Glastonbury — the cream of the pop-festival crop.
At this year’s Glastonbury, Washington was far from the only jazz musician. What’s more, those other players were homegrown. London in the 2010s contributed some of the most fertile, original — and accessible — jazz-rooted music on the planet. The scene has its own figurehead saxophonist in 35-year-old Shabaka Hutchings, who leads three popular acts (two of which, Sons of Kemet and The Comet Is Coming, were booked at Glastonbury). Washington, Hutchings and the U.K.’s other young jazz artists didn’t rise through traditional channels, or in modern jazz’s epicenter of New York. Nor did their music deal in the advanced harmony, odd time or avant-garde elements that have dissuaded so many young music fans from delving into jazz. Their gigs were loud, boisterous and melodically and rhythmically direct. Call it 21st-century fusion; call it the Kamasi Effect.
Washington’s music isn’t really jazz/hip-hop fusion, at least not overtly, but his fast-rising profile was boosted by his work with hip-hop artists Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar. The Epic was preceded by the saxophonist’s presence on Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, from 2015, one of the key recordings of the decade and undeniably a fusion of jazz and hip-hop, featuring classic swing rhythms, horn and keyboard textures and improvisation. Musicians in both genres have pursued that hybrid for decades now — in 2005, PopMatters called it “jazz’s holy grail” — but Butterfly achieved what they couldn’t: Lamar crafted not just a hybrid but a seamless, wholly organic one, with no meaningful distinction between the jazz and hip-hop elements.
In hindsight it seems obvious. To really work, the fusion needed drivers for whom hip-hop’s main ingredients were already baked into the cake. “We’ve grown up alongside rappers and DJs; we’ve heard this music all our life,” Washington told the Guardian in 2016. “We are as fluent in J Dilla and Dr. Dre as we are in Mingus and Coltrane.”
Groundwork had been laid earlier in the decade. Keyboardist Robert Glasper’s Grammy-winning Black Radio duology (2012/’13) served notice that the holy grail, also including contemporary R&B, was within reach and on the agenda; it got Glasper onto late-night network TV. (He, too, appears on To Pimp a Butterfly.) Bassist Esperanza Spalding, who began the decade with an astonishing Best New Artist win at the Grammys in 2011, sought out a related equilibrium on 2012’s Radio Music Society, which reached No. 10 on the Billboard 200. Trumpeter Christian Scott, who broke out in the 2000s with a sound that infused postmodern jazz with alt- and indie-rock elements, reinvented himself in 2012 with a de-westernized name — Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah — and began crafting an aesthetic that sought to meld jazz, hip-hop (including the raw syncopations of trap), electronica and black diasporic musics into an insoluble whole that he calls “stretch music.”
Across the pond, acid jazz, another fusion of jazz with dance-club music, had thrived in 1980s and ’90s London. (Gilles Peterson, the patriarch of the acid-jazz scene, is also a principal benefactor of 2010s London jazz.) From the start, though, jazz was a secondary ingredient in much of that music, buried under funk, soul, hip-hop and electronica. Over the past decade, Hutchings and others, including saxophonist Nubya Garcia and drummer Moses Boyd, have assimilated later developments in electronic music and DJ culture, such as grime and drum and bass, while also emphasizing the fiery spontaneity of live jazz. Drummer Makaya McCraven, whose acclaimed 2018 project, Universal Beings, features both Hutchings and Garcia, has filtered his live improvising units through a post-production process not unlike beatmaking.
London’s jazz fusion has an additional dimension, which draws on the city’s increasing population of immigrants from the former British Empire. Raised in Barbados, Hutchings brings Afro-Caribbean accents to Sons of Kemet and South African sounds to his third band, Shabaka and the Ancestors. Drummer Yussef Dayes bases his style on the West African traditions of his bloodline, while trumpeter Yazz Ahmed incorporates the sounds of her native Bahrain. British jazz is fusing not just with pop music, but with the U.K.’s deeper cultural makeup as well.
The 2010s also saw a resurgence, beyond To Pimp a Butterfly, of jazz artists being in demand for studio sessions. “Jazz cats used to be the ones who got called for Marvin Gaye or Aretha Franklin sessions,” Glasper lamented in 2013. “Now the whole thought of a jazz musician is that it’s not soulful anymore. I want to kill that.”
At decade’s end, it appears dead. Glasper himself has worked with Mos Def, JAY-Z and Common. Spalding and aTunde Adjuah worked with Prince. Washington is part of an L.A. collective, the West Coast Get Down, whose members work without genre restriction. Among the Get Down’s closest associates are Terrace Martin and Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, multi-instrumentalists who trained as jazz musicians. Martin, a renowned hip-hop producer and a member of Herbie Hancock’s working group, focuses on saxophone and keyboards; Bruner is an electric-bass virtuoso and vocalist. Both produce sophisticated, forward-looking R&B with artful pop sensibilities and dense jazz undercurrents.
Also capable of packing out a rock club — and backing David Crosby or Lalah Hathaway — is Snarky Puppy, the large, somewhat amorphous assemblage of musicians including alumni of the University of North Texas’ intensive jazz program. They added electronic music, hip-hop, neo-soul and more to fusion’s existing matrix, garnering success on the jam-band circuit in addition to a steady schedule of A-list jazz festivals.
In reinventing fusion and finding new access to the mainstream, then, jazz has refreshed its imprint on other genres as well. Perhaps this is the Glasper Effect.
Michael J. West is a jazz journalist who writes for the Washington Post, JazzTimes, DownBeat, Bandcamp Daily and other outlets. He lives with his family and his big headphones in Washington, D.C.
Image: Kamasi Washington, on saxophone, and trombonist Ryan Porter perform at the 2019 Glastonbury Festival. Credit: Leon Neal/Getty.
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