Taken from the Los Angeles Times, May 6, 2015 and written by Chris Barton… an article on jazz musician Kamasi Washington…
When jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington was contributing string arrangements to rapper Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, few could have predicted that both L.A. artists would end up dominating the conversation about hip-hop and jazz in 2015.
But Lamar’s album, released this spring, has earned widespread acclaim for expanding the boundaries of rap, a genre that’s easy to pigeonhole for those who follow only the mainstream.
Washington is earning similar raves for his explorations on The Epic, a bold, three-disc statement that features a 10-piece band, a 20-person choir and a 32-piece orchestra. The album is out this week.
Though the records appear to reside on different sides of the musical spectrum, they’re connected by a shared commitment to independent, artistic vision, forward-looking blends of sound and far-reaching narratives that push against genre constraints.
They’re also linked by a shared band of tightly knit L.A. artists who appear on both albums, including brothers Ronald and Stephen Bruner (the latter better known by his stage name Thundercat), Miles Mosley and Ryan Porter.
Together, the records point to a long-gestating high point for creative music coming out of Los Angeles, and the rest of the world is taking notice.
“In general in L.A., there’s a movement of sincere music that’s just people expressing who they are. That’s what I got from Kendrick when I went to hear his album,” said Washington, 34, speaking at his management’s lushly appointed offices in Culver City. “He wasn’t concerned with anything but doing music he thought would be great. That was the same outlook when I was making this record.
“I want to make the music that I hear in my head, it’s just purely what is in me.”
Some coverage of Washington’s rise to national attention has come with a faint air of surprise, as if it were impossible for a jazz artist to release such a fully formed opening statement without first being vetted by the music’s vaunted New York City gatekeepers. Washington is quick to cite L.A.’s long and storied jazz history, and he doesn’t mind having flown under the radar.
“In some way, that’s a bit of a blessing. I feel like that’s part of the reason it’s so organic, it’s so raw, it’s so pure,” Washington said of the music coming from him and his longtime friends, adding that the lack of outside pressure helped them remain free of anyone else’s expectations.
“In L.A., I don’t know if it’s because the sun’s always out, but we’re not paranoid about that,” Washington said. “We just do what we do.”
The son of saxophonist Rickey Washington, Kamasi grew up in Inglewood and has been playing with many of his bandmates since childhood. He studied under Locke High School educator Reggie Andrews in the L.A. Multi-School Jazz Band, a longtime incubator for South L.A. talent that has included members of the Pharcyde as well as Patrice Rushen and Ndugu Chancler.
Washington lived close enough to walk to Billy Higgins’ vaunted musical hub the World Stage in Leimart Park, and he would catch rides home from a young bandmate, Terrace Martin. A fellow saxophonist, Martin co-produced To Pimp a Butterfly and pulled him into the sessions after hearing early masters of The Epic.
“He played a couple of songs, and they had these amazing string arrangements, really cinematic, 3-D-sounding string arrangements,” Martin said. “I was confident he was the man for the job.”
Washington went on to study at UCLA, where he was mentored by revered bandleader Gerald Wilson, who asked him to join his band when he was just 19. “Kamasi’s in a world of his own,” said Wilson, who beamed while marking Washington as a talent to watch during a 2012 conversation. (Wilson died in 2014 at age 96.)
“It was like a first-hand experience through the history of music with Gerald. He really understood what was happening now in music as well,” Washington said, adding that he credits Wilson for encouragement to use a string section after an early show with his electric band, the Next Step. “He was definitely a powerful, powerful human being.”
While at UCLA, Washington was tapped to tour with Snoop Dogg through another connection with Martin. Though the rapper has long maintained a laidback public persona, Washington remembers him as an exacting bandleader for a tack-sharp group of young jazz players.
“He knew how good we were, so he’d just call stuff out in front of 60,000 people,” Washington remembered. “‘Let’s play this Rick James song that I was listening to in the dressing room 20 minutes ago’ — at the show.
“I learned a lot on that level, musically. The whole notion of jazz being the more intellectual music is not really true… These (hip-hop) dudes, they hear rhythm with a sense of detail that a lot of jazz musicians are not privy to.”
After years building a local following as a sideman and a leader, Washington entered the studio in 2011 with the same group of longtime friends. Their goal was to record as much music as possible over a month’s time. According to Washington, a staggering eight albums and 190 songs were recorded among the various ensembles, including 45 tracks of his own. From there the editing process for The Epic began.
“Trying to reduce it to an album took me awhile. I felt like all 17 of those songs, there was nothing I wanted to change about any of those,” he said. “And it was weird, I started having these dreams and the album was playing out through the dream. And I came to this conclusion — these were supposed to be together, this was it.”
The result is an ecstatic, urgent swirl of jazz, funk and cosmic gospel that balances individual fireworks from some of L.A.’s top jazz players with airtight interplay. Other than a soulful take on Ray Noble’s “Cherokee” as well as a song each by Terence Blanchard and Debussy, the album sets aside familiar covers for Washington’s original compositions.
“There’s a lot of pressure in jazz to express the lineage of the music, because it has such a rich lineage,” Washington said. “And I love it, I love ‘Trane, I love Bird, I love Gene Ammons, I love Wayne Shorter … But if I’m going to somehow display my mastery or knowledge of that vast group of musicians, how much room is there really left for me?”
Over 172 minutes, The Epic revels in an array of styles, at times capturing a meeting point between John Coltrane and Stevie Wonder, with each musical element on equal footing. Sometimes, such as on “Final Thought,” Washington’s flame-throwing saxophone takes the lead, while on “Re Run Home,” the focal point is an unstoppable Afrobeat groove. On “The Rhythm Changes,” it’s the soaring vocal of Patrice Quinn.
Anchored by a loose narrative about a warrior’s journey and a changing of the guard, the album’s penultimate track, “Malcolm’s Theme,” reveals a socially conscious center. Recasting Ossie Davis’ eulogy for Malcolm X through an ethereal vocal melody, the song gives way to a plea for understanding drawn from a speech by the civil rights leader from 1965.
“To me, it’s an album that’s needed right now. It’s a very intense, yet gentle album,” Martin said. “His record is right on time.”
Washington said of the sessions, “I was pushing (the band) — put more of yourself, go further, play something I’ve never heard you play before. I just really wanted it to feel free and open and just like an expression of who we were and what we are.
“It wasn’t to replace anything,” he added. “John Coltrane didn’t replace Coleman Hawkins. He just displayed who he was. The universe is a vast, vast place. There’s room for everything.”
This review of the brand new PE release comes from Heather Starks, July 25th on the In Your Speakers website…
For over twenty five years, Public Enemy has made a career out of decrying social injustice and taking on corporate greed through heated political raps that stand unmatched to this day. They were one of the first groups to attempt what is now known as rap-metal, collaborating with Anthrax for a remake of “Bring the Noise” and thereby forcing two previously opposing genres to shake hands and play nice. Without them, music as we know it might sound entirely different. Numerous artists have claimed them to be among their greatest influences, from Kurt Cobain all the way to the Icelandic princess herself, Bjork. So when they announced the pending release of Man Plans God Laughs, there was a collective feeling of excitement in the air.
It could not have come at more appropriate time considering our current state of affairs. “Black Lives Matter” has become a rallying cry for the African-American community, tired of watching young men and women being gunned down by the very people who are sworn to protect them. Riots have shut down entire cities, only reaching a boiling point after initial peaceful protests were ignored by the media as well as the majority of the country. Who better to take on this continuing fight to end racism and inequality than the group that helped bring it to the forefront with songs like “Fight the Power” and “911 Is a Joke”? Man Plans God Laughs is a continuation of their tirade against corruption and hatred, albeit an incredibly short one. The entire album clocks in at just under twenty seven minutes and each song ends almost abruptly, most of them falling in the two minute range. Despite the diminished running time, there is no lack of powerful admonishments and thought provoking lyrical jabs. Public Enemy may be getting older but they haven’t lost a single step.
Taking cues from the new generation of hip-hop by way of Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, there are some noticeable musical differences from the onset. “No Sympathy from the Devil” (one of two Rolling Stones influenced songs found on the album) starts off like an EDM track, slowly building before Chuck D jumps in with his signature choppy flow. It’s an interesting conflict of ideas since the lyrics confront the issue of ageism in rap music, as well as calling out younger rappers who spend too much time focusing on lyrical gymnastics instead of presenting a meaningful message. Chuck D explained their approach in this way: “It’s almost like that uncle sitting on the porch. He’s not going to be up there talking fast and all big winded. He’s not going to be screaming. He’s going to say three words that will get you to say, “Damn!”
The majority of the focus falls on social matters, dropping uncomfortable truth bombs like on “Mine Again” when Chuck D bellows: “So it’s cool to be black/Until it’s time to be black.” Or the heartbreaking opening of “Give Peace a Damn,” where a child asks his father to read him a bedtime story, only to hear, “Yeah, you gonna grow up and die,” in response. This heavy subject matter is nothing new for Public Enemy but it resonates louder in times of civil unrest. When you stop for a minute and think about the fact that they have been rapping about the same problems for over a quarter of a century, it makes any progress that’s been made seem inconsequential.
One of the most interesting tracks on the album is “Honky Tonk Rules,” a song that was intended for 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet. It samples the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” but they were unable to gain clearance for its use the first time around, despite the approval of Mick Jagger himself. Sheila Brody of Brides of Funkenstein lends her gravely, bluesy voice and it makes you wish the Stones had been able to use her for the original recording instead of the flat performance they coaxed out of Reparata and the Delrons. All these years later, Public Enemy is still working to bring the worlds of rock and hip hop together, once again achieving fantastic results.
Musically, Man Plans God Laughs is not going to be remembered as their greatest album. But that feels almost intentional; instead of trying to come up with the sickest beats they chose to make the lyrics the focal point of the whole record. The barrage of lambastings about the way of life for African-Americans and the continuing fight for racial equality are a necessary missive no matter how much certain factions might want us to think it’s not. It’s a plea for everyone to take off their blinders and look at the mess we’ve made of the human race and the lives that have been unnecessarily lost in the process. With a message like that, it’s no wonder the godfathers of hip-hop have remained public enemy number one.
Live at Oakland Coliseum, June 11-13, 1981…