OddBird Theatre, tucked away in a corner of the Dhan Mill compound in Chhatarpur, New Delhi, transformed into a hive of activity as it prepared for saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s first show recently. In the Green Room, Washington and trombone player Ryan Porter are just about to jump into a game of Street Fighter II on a laptop. There is little wonder that his last album featured a song called Street Fighter Mas.
Washington’s second album, Heaven and Earth, released to critical success in 2018. His music, since his debut album The Epic, has been touted as an important moment in modern jazz. He also released a short film earlier this year titled As Told To G/D Thyself in collaboration with Apple.
Washington, 38, spoke to The Indian Express on his musical influences, art in the streaming age, and a future graphic novel. Excerpts:
Your music combines different genres. Who are your influences?
Pretty much everybody. But I guess the biggest influence is John Coltrane, (Igor) Stravinsky is another big one, Billie Holiday, James Brown … there’s a lot of people.
How long have you been playing music?
I started playing music when I was three years old. I played drums first, then piano, and then I played clarinet, and then I switched over to the saxophone when I was 13.
What was the inspiration for your album Heaven and Earth?
Epic had come out and we were touring a lot. We recorded the bulk of Heaven and Earth in 2016. As a band, we got the closest we had been since we were kids. We were hanging out every day, we were listening to things and just kind of tripping out on why things are the way they are. The idea of Heaven and Earth, it was that. We talked a lot about the power of thought, the power of belief, the power that we each hold. I realised that I have this whole duality going on with the songs that are in my head and the songs my head is in. I thought we’ll make the album to showcase the connections and differences between those two things.
You’ve collaborated with artists like Kendrick (Lamar) and Run the Jewels, and Flying Lotus. Is there a standout or favourite?
You get one thing from one person and something different from another. I’ve enjoyed most of my collaborations for different reasons. Kendrick’s is one that stands out. I try to learn a person’s musical philosophy before I work with them.
In the physical version of Heaven and Earth there was a hidden EP, The Choice. Why not just do a surprise drop online or something?
It’s on streaming services too. But I think it’s one of those things where you make art and add meaning behind it and you’re trying to share something. This was a way for me to do that. I also thought it’d be cool. You know somebody someday has this record for 20 years and they realise that there’s something else in there.
What do you think of streaming services like Apple Music in general? Are they empowering young musicians?
It’s a duality, I think. Apple has given musicians the ability to decide their own fate. You can just put your music out and it’ll reach the masses. It’s not like you put it out and it’s in the one store in your neighbourhood. That’s a big deal. The idea of streaming has just made music really accessible. Sometimes it’s difficult on a financial level, but I think the art is bigger than anyone.
I think it’s also a transition from how music was consumed before. Maybe the way that people want to consume music is not the way musicians want them to consume it, so it’s an adjustment. As a musician you have this experience that you want people to have. But that just means that we have to open a new way to do that.
Right now it’s like, you have your music, and you have your visuals both right there. Imagine if John Coltrane had made a visual component to A Love Supreme and it was there and you could get it. He kind of got to control the physical aspect of how people listen to his music. You ended up listening to it probably the way that he had intended for you to. But life changes, and I look at it like an opportunity.
Did you see yourself on the billboard in Mumbai?
Oh yeah, that’s been surreal, man. We were on tour and I was just tripping on how advanced these phones have gotten. I’m a little analog myself. I’m not the one with the newest phones and stuff like that. But yeah, jazz has been this thing that’s always been pushed to the shadows, pushed out of the light. So to be in the light feels good.
Have you had a chance to check out any music from India?
Ali Akbar Khan is one of my favourite musicians. A lot of North Indian classical music has influenced me. I’m really interested to see what musicians are up to, but I have to come back and really explore.
Do you listen to Bollywood music?
A lot. When I was in UCLA I studied ethnomusicology and it was pretty big there. There’s beautiful melodies and there’s actually a lot of similarity between Indian and African-American cultures of music. Music unfolds in this kind of slow way. It felt that way at the concert in Mumbai. It felt like we could take our time, and that people were used to that.
Will there be a follow-up to Heaven and Earth?
I put so much of myself into Heaven and Earth I want to take some time to figure what I want to do next. But I’ve been working on a graphic novel.
So, will you pack your music with the graphic novel?
I don’t know. I’m exploring right now. I don’t even know what I want to do. Sometimes it’s like I don’t know what I want to do, and then there’s I don’t know how I want to do what I want to do. So there’s still one step, to get to how I want to do what I want.