The emergence of Los Angeles saxophonist Kamasi Washington as one of the hottest names in jazz – thanks to the avalanche of music he unleashed on his remarkable triple-disc debut album The Epic – has caused shockwaves on both sides of the Atlantic. Not only did The Epic come out at No.1 in Jazzwise’s Album of the Year Critics Poll, it’s won almost universal acclaim from both the jazz and rock press. This new LA scene’s wider impact now sees Herbie Hancock working with influential jazz-influenced über-producer Flying Lotus and bass-guitar whirlwind Thundercat. Kevin Le Gendre speaks to Washington and his bassist Miles Mosley, joining the dots of this expansive collective and tracing its deep links from contemporary rap star Kendrick Lamar to 1990s psychedelic hip hop and the 1960s spiritual jazz of Alice and John Coltrane
A major cinematic event of 2015, Straight Outta Compton would have done nothing to change a defining image of Los Angeles: the birthplace of gangsta rap. The big screen dramatisation of the rise and fall of N.W.A, a lethal force in 1990s hip-hop, reinforced the notion that the West Coast of America is a stomping ground for ‘urban’ music in which political substance often battles hard with a certain gun-ho nihilism.
However, a few months before the release of the above came the attention-grabbing arrival of one of the key jazz moments of the year, Kamasi Washington’s The Epic, an engrossing triple album that presented California in a distinctly different cultural light. Blending the spirituality of the Coltranes [Alice and John] with Stravinsky’s orchestral flourish and the tonal density of modern black pop, the music unveiled a largely unknown young tenor saxophonist of startling maturity. Perhaps more importantly it bolstered any legitimate claim Los Angeles can make to being a vital creative hub for improvised music, even though the geography of the city, above all its sprawling expanse, may have given another impression, as Washington explains.
“The scene is interesting,” he stated via email. “There are lots of amazing musicians, but Los Angeles is just a really big, as in large, city. You can drive for two hours in no traffic and still be in LA! That can sometimes make the scene feel diluted, but if you look closely there are some truly unique talents and one-of-a-kind sounds in LA.”
No greater symbol of this creative subsoil is the collective The West Coast Get Down (WCGD), a 10-strong aggregation of players in their early 30s, of which Washington is a part, that includes double bassist Miles Mosley, pianist Cameron Graves, keyboardist Brandon Coleman, trombonist Ryan Porter, drummers Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr, bass guitarist Stephen ‘Thundercat’ Bruner and vocalist Patrice Quinn.
Crucially, there is a chemistry that binds these musicians by dint of the fact that they attended the same music education programmes at the tender age of 15, above all Reggie Andrews’ Locke Multi-School Band, before they went on to strengthen their ties through countless gigs at anything from post-match shows for basketball teams at the Great Western Forum to clubs like Boardners in Hollywood, which mostly leans towards rock and goth audiences. The other Tinseltown venue that proved to be a ‘compositional incubator’ was Piano Bar. “This was where the WCGD residency had the longest, most popular run,” explains Miles Mosley. “We would regularly pack 300 people in there on a Wednesday night and 500 on a Friday. It became the ‘go-to’ hang for every high level musician in the city. We created a controlled environment in which quality was guaranteed and the music was entirely ours.”
Such is the collective thinking that drives the WCGD, the sessions that yielded The Epic comprise no fewer than 170 songs that will filter through to the wider world as albums under the names of each composer in the collective in the fullness of time. Having said that, WCGD member Thundercat has been a known quantity since his 2011 debut The Golden Age Of Apocalypse. That wily offering and its 2013 follow-up Apocalypse drew together electric jazz and a digital age lexicon in a manner that was neither contrived nor incoherent.
In other words virtuosity was offset by a finely calibrated use of programming, sequencing and bang up to date audio software. Solo did not submerge song. Pop went with art. Player and studio were at one.
Thundercat’s longstanding association with Flying Lotus, grand-nephew of Alice Coltrane, a producer at the cutting edge of electronica, was key to his development, and they also bonded over their love for another Californian, the late keyboard wizard George Duke, whose 1975 fusion classic, The Aura Will Prevail, lit their creative path. “Me and Thundercat would drive around and listen to that record like some people listen to Juicy J [aka rapper Jordan Michael Houston],” Lotus told The New York Times last year. Tellingly, Kamasi Washington has loosely connected references, given that his father Rickey was a horn player for a band that greatly inspired Duke and also had a wholly unique take on populism, sophistication and Egyptology: Earth, Wind & Fire.
Los Angeles, location for Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song, the revolutionary 1971 film for which EWF provided the soundtrack, is a city with a rich jazz heritage in any case. Buddy Collette, Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon and Chico Hamilton began blazing trails there from the 1940s and many other keepers of the flame would follow. All of which means today’s prime movers did not simply step out of a vacuum. They are part of a history with very deep roots.
It was indeed the old guard to which the young Turks of the West Coast Get Down turned in their formative years. They learned much at The World Stage in Leimert Park. “We would constantly attend jam sessions at that venue,” says bassist Mosley. “And surround ourselves with LA heroes like Billy Higgins, who was a mentor to us all.”
Washington echoes his sentiment and also hails the pianist-composer Horace Tapscott as a key pathfinder. “I grew up in Leimert Park and his footprint is all over that area. We all learned his music and his philosophies from the elders who played with him that are still with us. Horace is one of the most important figures in the foundation of music in LA, from both a purely musically and socially conscious perspective. My dad took me to hear [Tapscott’s] Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra many times and I played with them after Horace passed away.”
The aforementioned group is something of a west coast jazz institution, certainly for its decisive political as well as musical substance, and the sense of community that it came to embody. While the legacy of Tapscott, who nurtured countless musicians between the late 1960s and his death in the late 1990s, can be heard in the WCGD, the other artist who is a kind of bridge between the two is vocalist Dwight Trible. One time vocal director of P.A.P.A he has brought his sterling baritone to the music of Charles Lloyd, Pharoah Sanders and Kamasi Washington and in 2005, after long years as a guest artist, he made a superb album under his own name, Living Water, which was flooded with Coltranian spirituality and luminous balladry.
Perhaps more importantly Trible collaborated with producer Carlos Nino, one half of hip-hop duo Ammoncontact, and while this might have appeared a novel consolidation of jazz and beats-based music it simply became another strand in the established entwinement of the two forms. Lest we forget the West Coast, despite the headline grabbing rise of gangsta-rap, yielded throughout the 1990s and into the millennium a wave of esoteric, irreverent, feverishly original, often jazz-informed hip-hop acts that includes Freestyle Fellowship, Hieroglyphics, The Pharcyde, Madlib and Sa-Ra Creative Partners, whose pithy compound nomenclature is a thinly veiled reference to a legendary Chicagoan bandleader who beamed all the way down to earth from Saturn.
Quite fittingly, Sa-Ra member Shafiq Husayn contributed to Thundercat’s Golden Age Of Apocalypse, and as far as Washington is concerned the ‘alt’ hip-hoppers drew on the same sources as West Coast improvisers. “Horace Tapscott heavily influenced local hip-hop heroes like Freestyle Fellowship and The Pharcyde as well. His form of avant-garde jazz really set the table for what we are doing now!”
Accurate as the observation may be it doesn’t quite explain why the likes of Washington and Thundercat have made such a big impact beyond a jazz constituency. What has brightened the mainstream spotlight on them is the record deal offered by Flying Lotus, who has issued their work on Brainfeeder, a subsidiary of Ninja Tune, the UK label that has purveyed cutting edge dance music for some 25 years.
Miles Mosley welcomes the connection. “In releasing Stephen [Thundercat] and Kamasi’s records he [Lotus] has introduced his fan base to music they may not have otherwise taken note of. It seems that he has a shared theory that the music we refer to as jazz is broad, and does not have to be reserved for intellectual pursuits.”
Furthermore, Thundercat, Washington and other WCGDers made a significant contribution to one of the other great musical events of 2015, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, not so much a hip-hop jazz album as an encounter of the two aesthetics in which one neither neuters nor adulterates the other. Again Mosley sees benefits here.
“Much of what has helped expand the reach of The Epic is the pop culture influence of Kendrick, and his willingness to share the spotlight with us, the musicians that worked on his album. As I see it, the symbiotic relationship, and the magnetism found in Kendrick’s album openly exhibiting jazz influences and The Epic portraying open hip-hop influences, allowed for a bridge to be made between the two.”
All of which should hopefully shift perceptions of the West Coast beyond the gangsta-rap brought to the big screen. Then again cinema has also partially impinged on local jazz. The availability of work in film and television leads to what Mosley calls, “the dispersion of its most talented musicians into more lucrative areas of the music business”. Yet as Washington et al are proving, a peer group committed to its art that is open to other collaborators can make a difference. “There is a telepathy that has developed among the musicians, a short hand that defines a unique sound for a scene, and often an entire city.”
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This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise here: jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe-to-jazzwise-magazine