Kamasi Washington brings his band and generation-defining jazz to St. Louis
The last time tenor sax player Kamasi Washington was in St. Louis, he was playing keyboards for soul legend Chaka Khan. That was several years ago, and since then, he’s become one of the go-to jazz artists of his generation, crafting opulent concept albums with “The Epic” and “Heaven and Earth,” working with Kendrick Lamar, Thundercat, Robert Glasper and former first lady Michelle Obama.
Washington and his band are in St. Louis on Saturday for the Music at the Intersection festival, which features performances from Erykah Badu, Gary Clark Jr., Murphy Lee and Kyjuan, Glasper and Foxing.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Chad Davis spoke with Washington about his career, how science fiction and the Black diaspora shape his sound and his upcoming graphic novel.
Chad Davis: One of the things that's interesting about the festival is that it really focuses on the roots of music, and really Black music, which is so much of American music. Is that something that you've kind of seen being more of a focus at festivals over recent years?
Kamasi Washington: I've definitely seen it become more integrated. It used to always be that at jazz festivals you would see other styles of music being played. But you rarely saw jazz and blues and stuff like that at the other festivals. Now, you're seeing more of a mixture of everything, you know, which I think is cool.
I think that idea of giving people a full gambit of different styles of music is really cool, and that includes the kind of more foundational music like blues, gospel, jazz, things like that, and I think it's a more enriching experience for the listeners.
Davis: Are you into Afrofuturism or any type of science fantasy? It seems like it's very integrated into your music, especially this last album.
Washington: Oh, definitely. I'm definitely big like science fiction, fantasy, Afrofuturism. ... Generally, like my head's on the clouds, most of the time. And it definitely has an effect on my music. I'm actually working on a graphic novel myself right now.
“The Epic” definitely was inspired to a certain degree by some kind of like out-of-body experience, kind of dreamish thing that I had while we were recording it. That's definitely a big part of who I am.
Davis: I thought that your album, “Heaven and Earth,'' really focused on that duality, the dreaming but then also the reality and the surreal and also the real. Is that something that you want to be a constant theme?
Washington: It's an important reality, that kind of symbiotic relationship, the effect of how we see the world affects how the world is, and how the world affects how we see the world. There's a kind of a circle, a cycle, and as you want to have an effect on the world, you have to see the world in that same way.
My next album is not necessarily going to be surrounding that exact point. Each record has a different kind of point, purpose.
Davis: You’re a bandleader, but you just have so many different moving pieces, and everyone just seems to coexist together. How does the songwriting process start, how does the composing process start?
Washington: My songwriting process is almost like gardening. There's a certain point where it’s like you had the plant in the pot, and you're watering it, you’re taking care of it, you’re clipping the leaves and doing little things.
A lot of times songs start off as seeds, just some little idea, and then I start to grow it and I start to find other ideas I can attach to it. I start to think of the orchestration arrangement, and then once I feel like it's at a certain place, then I bring it to the musicians.
Davis: What's inspiring you right now to form your next ventures, your next album, the graphic novel?
Washington: During the pandemic I was doing a lot of writing. I became a father, I have a daughter, it also gave me a lot of time to kind of think and reflect.
For me, life is always the ultimate inspiration. As you live, as you feel, as experience, those times create thoughts and those thoughts are what drive the music. So I'm kind of inspired by everything, it can be just walking down the street or going to hear some music or going to see a show or reading a book or watching a movie, or, you know, just having some random epiphany or revelation.
Davis: What can listeners expect from your concert?
Washington: Come with an open heart. The energy you bring, the lifeforce that you bring into the room, it definitely affects us. So we're all going to kind of create something together. It'd be fun. I can guarantee that.
Follow Chad on Twitter: @iamcdavis