Photo Credit: Ginny Suss for Okayplayer
Kamasi Washington, Pharoah Sanders + Sun Ra Arkestra Form A Jazz Singularity In NYC
“If this is a dream, please nobody touch me or pinch me - I don’t want to wake up until it’s done,” says Kamasi Washington. It’s around 6:15pm on a Sunday evening in a refashioned warehouse-turned-loft space in Brooklyn, a few hours before he is slated to perform with the Sun Ra Arkestra and Pharoah Sanders (as the headliner, no less) for Red Bull Music Academy's annual Spring music festival. Washington and I are sitting by a sun-drenched window discussing the significance of such an event. “My first concert ever--I was like eight years old--was when Pharoah was playing at the World Stage and my dad took me to go hear him play,” Kamasi tells me. “It’s hard to put into words how much both of these artists meant to me growing up.”
Earlier in the day, he posted a photo on Instagram of the billboard advertising the show with a caption, “The music of Pharoah Sanders and The Sun Ra Arkestra has meant the world to me since I was a kid! To share a stage with them will be one of the greatest honors of my life!” Needless to say, Washington seems excited - or about as excited as his serene demeanor will reveal. His commanding physical presence is a far cry from his kind and calming aura; even a quick meeting with Kamasi proves the aphorism to be true indeed; vibes really don’t lie. It also seems that he never separate himself from his music, wearing his saxophone around his neck and sometimes tapping the keys as he speaks as if his words and those motions are one and the same. “I do believe sound is the one sense you don’t have control over - you can decide not to taste something, or smell something, you can close your eyes, you can not touch something if you don’t want to. Music is the last and final connection that can’t be broken. It connects us in a way that is almost beyond our control,” Kamasi explains.
In those moments and the many to come during the night’s performances, having The Arkestra and Pharoah Sanders conceptually hand the still-burning torch of spiritual jazz to Washington as the culminating act seems more than just smart booking, a true convergence of frequencies, made accessible to us from another dimension through sound. “It’s really just consciousness,” says Kamasi of these feelings of connection through sonic vibrations. “We know consciousness exists and that it doesn’t die, it just transforms… I think that musicians in particular are blessed, in that we’re kind of in that world all the time, exploring something beyond our understanding.” As much as the phrase “cosmic energy” may have already been used to described the night’s billings, it’s almost impossible to describe the feeling in the building any other way - even as we sat down to talk, music quite literally emanated from the walls as horns and basses warmed up for the evening.
If this musical spirit can be transferred and shared across generations, the contemporary music scene in Los Angeles from which Washington emerges certainly proves that it travels among and between friends and collaborators as well. Artists like Thundercat, Kendrick Lamar, Terrace Martin, and many others stand alongside Kamasi as members of a new musical vanguard exploring and expanding the boundaries of hip hop, jazz, funk and all the spaces in between, creating transformative music that is both historically informed and completely revolutionary at the same time. When I asked Washington what exactly is going on over there to produce such a moment, he explains it very clearly. “In LA, that energy has always been there, it’s just that no one was looking at us. There’s a consequence to success; when you’re out of the limelight you can develop yourself and your music in a way that is very personal, that is very pure.” Without the pressures of the mainstream music industry trying to both celebrate and capitalize on your talent, that talent can be free to grow into its own without expectation or limitation. And grow it has; in last year’s digital media space, you couldn’t throw a proverbial rock and not hit glowing praise for Washington’s debut The Epic or To Pimp A Butterfly, on which he collaborated with Kendrick, two albums that clearly deserved all the kind words and then some--but also seemed to come out of nowhere with their sudden impact on pop culture.
Our conversation comes to a close as his manager walks over to kindly remind me that Kamasi still has a full schedule before the show starts, including eating, showering, and other press engagements (my bad, Le Monde). Of course, the show itself was transcendent from start to finish - The Arkestra brought us to space and back with enough sequins to spare; Pharoah played a stunning rendition of John Coltrane’s "Naima" that brought some people visibly to tears. And still, before we left our pre-show talk of sonic frequencies and spiritual vibrations, my final question to Kamasi had to be a very practical one: what are his favorite food spots both at home and on the road? When he’s back in L.A., his go-to spot is Connie’s Seafood for Mexican; when he’s on the road, he considers himself a “regionalist,” trying out whatever the local flavor is known for to truly experience that area – so yes, even in practical matters, Kamasi Washington still seeks out a vibe. No surprise there.