Los Angeles jazz virtuoso in conversation...

“I just love rhythm,” Kamasi Washington tells a crowd packed like sardines around his circular stage in the centre of an abandoned warehouse in Brooklyn. “I used to be a drummer - that’s why I always got two, three, four drummers on stage with me.” Moments later, his two drummers (both members of Kamasi’s West Coast Get Down collective that includes Stephen ‘Thundercat’ Bruner) kick off a drumming ‘battle’ of such whip-crack lightning speed that you wonder how it’s possible they only have two hands each.

He’s in this part of NY - the mecca of jazz since the ’40s - for a show with the Sun Ra Arkestra and legendary saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders as part of Red Bull Music Academy’s New York Festival. Intricate wooden carvings, light sculptures and sound-responsive ink patterns are beamed onto the bare brick walls, bathing the evening in a cosmic aura. The Arkestra (fronted by 91-year-old Marshall Allen) are draped in sequined robes, while Sanders, who shaped the sound of spiritual jazz in the mid-’60s, is in high spirits; jumping down into the audience despite his 75 years. A stressed-looking bouncer leaps down after him.

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People are into jazz, they just don’t know it...

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There’s a cyclical nature to the evening that’s mirrored by the round stage: Kamasi’s father Rickey, who gifted his son his first soprano saxophone, is about to play on stage with him. “I’m knocking on wood every time I get the chance,” Kamasi says about tonight, catching a breather (and some chicken) in between the soundcheck and live show. “Pharoah Sanders was the first concert I ever went to as a kid. It’s going to be emotional.”

Kamasi is the man who’s been labelled the ‘saviour of jazz’, whose debut album arrived last year on Brainfeeder as a 172-minute odyssey into jazz, G-funk and a big band version of Debussy’s ‘Claire de Lune’. He composed for Flying Lotus’ ‘You’re Dead!’ and counts Snoop Dogg as a collaborator. More recently, he enjoyed a key role of arranging and playing alto sax on Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, an album that’s been credited with putting jazz back on the map.

At the mention of this, Kamasi shrugs. “I’ve had this saying for a long time: people are into jazz, they just don’t know it.”

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The southern Los Angeles virtuoso, who grew up on a diet of both Bach and N.W.A., takes the concept of freedom seriously: “I let my music be what it is and not worry about trying to make it fit into the construct of what people think is acceptable. My music, it unfolds, it takes a lot for it to unfold. It’s not quite music....” he pauses.

Refusing to be tied down to any genre or school of thinking, Kamasi’s personal listening encompasses everything from hip-hop, R&B, rock and roll, Cuban, Puerto Rican, African and European music - which is obvious when you hear his music. “I don't separate the musical sensibility I use when I play hip-hop from the musical sensibility that I use when I play jazz. They live in the same house,” he nods.

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I only want to stay sleeping. I don’t want to wake up.

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“Music, in the end, it's a universal language,” he summarises. “You can create and play with people that you don't know, that you've never seen before. But in my situation, we [the West Coast Get Down] have grown up together so we know each other. There's a freedom and a confidence I can play with that I know that they'll understand where I'm coming from. They get it. I don't have to explain it to them. It's a confidence that nothing can go wrong - I can do anything I want to do.”

Despite being billed next to some bona fide legends, it’s the young contemporary jazz star that draws the biggest applause throughout our cosmic journey that night. “It’s kind of a dream-come-true kind of thing,” Kamasi says in his gentle, yet assured way. “I only want to stay sleeping. I don’t want to wake up. I’m just going to keep dreaming...”

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Words: Felicity Martin
Photography: Dom Smith

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