Story/Interview by PARIS POMPOR

First appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald

Update: Kamasi Washington plays the Sydney Opera House on Sun 4 December 2022
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If all of KAMASI WASHINGTON‘s dreams came true, he would be landing in Sydney with a vocal choir, string ensemble, 10-piece band and his aunt Lula’s company of interpretive dancers. It’s not unheard of for the Los Angeles-based tenor saxophonist to search for stretch-out space – literally and figuratively – on a stage crammed with 30 performers.

What’s more likely to materialise locally is a scaled-down vision.

“The difficulty’s always having the budget,” Washington says. “I always try and bring as much as I can because I feel like the vision of this record is a big one. I would love people to be able to hear it the way it should sound.”

The record Washington refers to is The Epic, his fourth as band leader. Finding copies of its three, independently-released predecessors is difficult, yet this latest sprawling 174-minute opus is seemingly everywhere, including numerous Best of 2015 lists.

Apart from length, The Epic lives up to its name. It owes as much to bebop as it does to spiritual jazz and funk-driven soul-jazz soundtracks from yesteryear as whirlpools of freewheeling saxophone, pummelling rhythms and vault-lifting choral arrangements arrive in undulating, thrilling waves.

There are passages where the listener might imagine themselves on a joy trip around a far-flung galaxy, so it’s no surprise when Washington says: “I didn’t always think I was going to be a musician. I was really into science and maths when I was younger, and space.”

Washington, 35, presents as something of a cosmic cat. Aside from colourful tunics, beads, jumbo jewellery and celestial album artwork, the 35-year-old’s nightly dreams are a major influence on life and work.

“One of the first songs I started writing choir parts to was Change of the Guard,” Washington says of The Epic‘s opening 12-minute declaration. “While I was working on that song I started having this recurring dream about a guy who was standing on a mountaintop guarding a cave.”

In the dream, warriors from the village at the mountain’s base would ascend to battle the guard and assume the role. It was an analogy for jazz, with the gatekeeper being responsible for assuring the genre’s forward-moving evolution. Only a worthy new vanguard could successfully seize control.

“That dream I had more than once,” he says. “Then I started expanding on it. All 17 songs [from The Epic] form a part of. So it couldn’t be reduced. It turned into this long story that I’m actually working on as a graphic novel.”

The dream had further meaning for Washington.

“Sometimes we guard ourselves,” he says. “We get so caught up in what we’re supposed to do. Your dreams can let you know what you really want to do. Before that dream I was struggling with what to put on my album. I was going backwards and forwards: what songs I was going to take off or shorten…? What that dream did for me was let me know what I really wanted was to put out all that music… [a] full statement.”

Presumably his record label’s manager, electronic producer Flying Lotus, was daunted by the prospect of releasing a three-disc set when the market is dictated to by short attention spans.

“He just laughed,” recalls Washington. “He was like: I knew you were going to do something like that.

“I do have pretty way out dreams,” Washington admits when asked if the aforementioned night vision was unusual.

Can he recall another recent dream?

“There was a space program, kinda like Starstruck and they were asking people if they wanted to go on a journey, but if you went on it you wouldn’t come back for 20 years. So of course I went. We went to this planet. There was no sign of life. I found this amulet and I pocketed it because I wanted to keep it. When I got it off the planet it started making this really amazing melody and I started to realise that it was singing out because it wanted to go back to its planet.

“It was speaking to me,” Washington continues. “So the rest of the dream was me trying to convince the captain of the ship to go back to the planet. The melody was really cool.”

Did he quickly notate the amulet’s song upon waking up?

“I tried to. It was hard to remember. I got something, I’m not sure if it’s exact. I’ve got to have it again, force myself to dream that same dream.”

When it comes to working that melody, or any other musical idea that occurs to him, into a full blown composition, Washington is more likely to be sitting at a piano than blowing his sax.

“The writing process is a little more solitary,” compared to the recording process says Washington. While recording, he is surrounded by musician friends he has known since childhood, all of them collaborating to expand on the saxophonist’s arrangements.

“I have a studio in my house and I end up at the piano alone. But when I write I always leave room and space for musicians to freely interpret what I write. My writing isn’t very strict. Even though it’s very detailed… I do leave lots of room in my head for interpretation.”

So as he’s sketching out a tune on the piano, is he already imagining the glorious, snaking, sometimes shrieking, saxophone outbursts that will be his part in the performance and recording?

“Sometimes I’m thinking of the instrumentation. [But] usually the song starts out as skeleton that could be any instrument. Saxophones are pretty fluid, so I don’t think too much about how difficult or not difficult something is. I’m just trying to capture the… vibe of the music. That comes first for me. I work around the music more so than writing the music around the instrumentation. I don’t write particularly for the saxophone. The saxophone is a pretty agile instrument. There’s not a whole lot of concessions you need to make for a saxophone. It’s not like a trombone or a bassoon. We can play a lot of stuff.”

And Washington certainly does.

Back to his dreams though. Was it always a dream, even as a young child, to be a professional musician?

“I started playing music when I was really young – three years old – probably even younger…I didn’t always think I was going to be a musician. I didn’t know. I got way into physics and chemistry when I was in high school.

“It’s funny, [because] my mum’s a science teacher. The first college that I applied to was USC (University of Southern California) and they denied me [entry] as a music major and accepted me as a physics major,” laughs Washington.

Apparently the university made some kind of administration error, “but I was close to going in that [science] direction,” says Washington.

Doubtless, if he had continued with physics, he’d now be spouting hypotheses that make string theory pedestrian by comparison.

“I’ve always loved music my whole life, I [just] didn’t know if it would be my profession.”