Music

On a scorching afternoon in Hyde Park, Kamasi Washington is staying cool in his customary floor-length dashiki as he takes in the ambiance of Frida Escobedo’s extraordinary lattice design for this year’s Summer Pavilion. The following night will see the structure rocked by Kamasi’s tenor sax as part of the Serpentine’s annual Park Nights program, but the topic of conversation isn’t his own transcendent sound, rather those who have shaped it.

As the face of a mainstream jazz renaissance that extends far beyond the traditional confines of the genre, Kamasi and his community of LA musicians are the product of a rich musical heritage, where style and influence seep across hip-hop and reggae, into funk, Afrobeat and soul. His two solo albums The Epic and Heaven and Earth, not to mention his work on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, offer a holistic synthesis of African-American music, one characterised by multilingualism and an acute political conscience. Accordingly, the sounds that nurtured Kamasi represent a smorgasbord of influences; from his formative years of Coltrane, The Jazz Messengers and West coast hip-hop, to his Ethnomusicology degree at UCLA, touring with Snoop Dogg and subsequent collaborations with Flying Lotus, Thundercat and Lauryn Hill among many others.

In no particular order, he takes us through five albums that have had a lasting impact on him.

Like Someone in Love, Art Blakey, 1966

Finn Blythe: You were born into a very musical family, both your parents played, what sounds do you recall from those early years?
Kamasi Washington: When I was really young, my dad was playing a lot of jazz records, John Coltrane, Charles Lloyd, my mum was really into Chaka Khan and Whitney and stuff like that. I was really into the West Coast hip-hop. 

I guess a good record for those [formative years] would be this Art Blakey record called Like Someone in Love. I was stuck in between those two worlds but what really drew me into jazz was this cousin who gave me a mixtape of a bunch of Art Blakey records. It had songs from Free For All, it had songs from Buhaina’s Light, it had songs from A Night in Tunisia, Moanin, Mosaic and Like Someone in Love, and there’s a song there called Sleeping Dancer Sleep On, which was the first song I ever learned on the saxophone after the clarinet. But that tape is what made jazz cool to me and not like, my Dad’s music.

FB: So you didn’t start off with sax?
KW: Na, I started off on drums actually, then I switched to piano, then clarinet and then saxophone. 

FB: Wow, by the age of?
KW: Thirteen when I started playing saxophone. 

FB: And drums?
KW: Really young, I was probably three or something like that.

Transition, John Coltrane, 1970

KW: So after that record I was into jazz and started playing saxophone. But the record that really blew my mind and became my biggest influence, probably ever, is a John Coltrane record called Transition. That was my Dad’s favourite record and I remember being a kid and him trying to show it to me and just not liking it, I was like, “I like the Jazz Messengers” [laughs]. So then I got more into music and more into saxophone and I went to Tower Records and saw Transition and I was like, “Oh man, this looks familiar to me.” I bought the CD and on the bus going back I had this deeply emotional response to the record, I was like, “Wow, oh my god this is so good.” I was just blown away. I remember going back to my Dad and being like, ‘Have you ever heard this record called Transition?’, he’s like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ [laughs]

Legacy, Ali Akbar Khan, 1996

FB: So you’d say that Coltrane has been a presence ever since?
KW: Yeah definitely. And you were asking me about Ethnomusicology, there’s a record by Ali Akbar Khan called Legacy. It was an interesting record to me because there was Ali Akbar Khan, who comes from this really distinguished family in Hindustani classical music – a practice that’s passed down your family. But he did this record with a singer Asha Bhosle, who was a really famous Bollywood pop singer, but they came together to make Indian classical music, and to see that was quite controversial.

FB: Because they came from such different backgrounds?
KW: Yeah, but the music they made was so beautiful. It was a cool thing to me just seeing that boundary coming down. 

FB: That cross-pollination is such a big element of your work as well. Not just in terms of your style but the ability to seamlessly work with an artist who comes from a completely different musical background.
KW: Yeah, well it just shows that music is so universal, how two people from different walks of life can have a mutual respect for one another, y’know? And this was just so beautiful. I was coming from being really into John Coltrane who was really into Indian music himself, and it was like my equivalent experience of really learning about its beauty. It was really one of the first records from my Ethnomusicology experiences that I bought my own copy of and really like, dug into on my own, outside of school, y’know?

Doggystyle, Snoop Dogg, 1993

KW: Now it gets real tricky [laughs]. In terms of my formative years, that tour with Snoop… So I would say Snoop’s music, his album that had the most impact on me was Doggy Style

FB: How old were you when that came out?
KW: Well, Doggy Style came out in ’93 so I was twelve and in Junior High School. It was just one of those records that, like I said, a lot of those songs were samples and stuff like that, that was the song, that was the only version of it I knew, so when I went to go on tour with him, playing those songs was like playing a soundtrack to my early adolescence. It was totally surreal. I remember being backstage playing Madden with Snoop and I was just like, “I can’t believe this is happening right now.” You know what I’m sayin’?

FB: And how did that tour come together?
KW: Terrace Martin actually called me for it. He’d been working with Battlecat and this guy called Marvin Williams, and Snoop wanted to put together a live band with a horn section. So myself, Terrace and Ryan Porter, who plays trombone, were the horn section. It was very eye-opening for me because I grew up listening to hip-hop but never really played it. So I had this divide between the music that I listened to and the music that I played and then all of a sudden I had to play it and learn to understand it. It definitely opened my mind to how many different ways you can think about music. 

FB: On a technical level?
KW: Yeah. So you listen to a lot of the music and it seems like it’s going to be kind of simple, but for them it’s all about the feel and how you play the music. That really helped me as a jazz musician because jazz is wide, you can kind of get away with playing cool stuff but not really considering how you’re playing it. But all of a sudden I’m playing with Snoop and it’s like, well there’s no opportunity to play any of that stuff, you got to play, bup bup-ba-da dee-dup, and it’s all about how you play that line not just playing the notes and keeping the rhythm. You got to make it feel good or what will happen is Soopafly would come up and just be like, “Na it’s cool, just lay off.” And if he tells you to lay off too much, that means you know you’re probably about to get fired because they’re not feeling what you’re playing [laughs]. So you have to learn how to place what you’re playing in the right space, the timing, the tone, everything, all the subtleties of music were pushed to the forefront and it was like, oh man, it made me hyper aware of them and then I took that awareness to jazz and all of a sudden I’m really thinking about how I’m playing stuff.

FB: And what’s Snoop’s musical interest like?
KW: Really wide actually, he’s one of those people that listens to a lot of records, he could probably teach a musicology class himself [laughs]. This was pre-iTunes so backstage you’re constantly hearing all these records that you never even heard, he was always playing music.

FB: Pre-Shazam as well.
KW: [Laughs] Na you didn’t know what you were hearing. One time we were at a show and he played this Rick James song and he was just looping it, which he didn’t normally do, he’d normally play different songs all the time, but we were all backstage just chilling and he was looping this song, it’s called Bustin Out, and no one said anything. So everybody’s just chillin’, smokin’ and drinkin’, playing video games like any other time but the song is just looping. It starts off with Rick James going, ‘Well alright you squares!’ and then this trombone part comes in. So we go on stage and we had a whole other intro, a whole other theme that we were going to do, and Snoop walks out in front of about 60,000 people, gets on the mic and goes, ‘Well alright you squares!’ [laughs] And it’s like straight over everybody’s head, nobody in the band knew what he was talking about, we’re ready to play our regular little intro and he turns around to look at the band, and goes, ‘Well alright you squares!’, and we’re like, ‘What is happening right now?’ Luckily we have this trombone player called Isaac Smith and Isaac got it, and he started playing the Rick James song. So you had the whole band, no-one had talked about the key, or what the bass line was and you had this line, da-da-da-dee da-da, and everyone had to just come in and it was an amazing experience but I was like, that could have gone so bad. Snoop was like that, he expected his band to be on some genius stuff. That was one of the most interesting moments, I was like ‘Wow man, we did it but how did he know we were going to be able to do that?’ When Isaac came in it was like the train’s moving now, it’s on the tracks and I hope this bass player knows the bass line [laughs].

The Resistance, Brandon Coleman, 2018 

KW: This is kind of in-house but my friend Brandon has put out his first single Giant Feelings, on this record The Resistance. He wrote a lot of the record way back when we did The Epic so it’s all this music I haven’t heard in years and when I heard it I was like ‘Oh wow’ this is really great. 

FB: How do you know him?
KW: I know Brandon since we were kids. So Ronald Bruner and Thundercat, Steven Bruner, their dad and my dad were in a band together, so that third birthday party when I got a drum set, Ronald was there and he was a drummer who was already good. He was like, one [laughs]. I was like, ‘This is ridiculous, this guy isn’t potty trained but can play drums real good.’ Brandon went to school with me and Brandon’s older brother used to play bass in a band my dad had, so I became friends with Brandon but he didn’t play music at first. He played drums a little bit but it wasn’t like his thing, y’know? Then when he was like seventeen, we were standing at the bus stop and he was like, ‘Man, Imma switch and play piano.’ At this point we’d already been playing for years and I remember thinking, ‘Alright, I’ll see you in ten years or something like that man’. We all graduated from High School and started doing gigs and I remember coming back from a tour and everybody’s like ‘Man, you heard Brandon play?’, I was like ‘Brandon Coleman?’ you know what I mean? They were like, ‘Man, he’s killing it’, I was like ‘Brandon’s killing it?!’ It’s been like, a year, y’know? But he dove in head first and I remember when I heard him I was like, ‘Wow, what did you do man? Who did you make a deal with?’ [laughs]

Buy Heaven and Earth here, and check out the full COS x Serpentine Park Nights program at serpentinegalleries.org