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The Interview

The Surreal World Of Jazz Saviour Mr Kamasi Washington

The saxophonist turns director with a new short film exploring youth and humanity

  • Mr Kamasi Washington. Photograph by Durimel

The thing about Mr Kamasi Washington is that he’s as unapologetically and brilliantly cosmic as you imagined he would be. He is often depicted, dubiously, as some sort of saxophonist shaman, pied piper-ing thousands of global music fans yet to be sold the virtues of jazz over the rhythmically challenging threshold into noodling abandon. But the reality is, well, quite like that. Yes, he is partial to wearing a robe. Yes, at some point during our interview there is mention of a colleague’s cannabis vape being charged. And, yes, a conversation with Mr Washington can make you wonder whether you actually entered the cafe through a hologram and are sitting in another dimension while you talk about music, film, life, the universe and everything in between.

“I live in my head more than I live outside of it,” he says softly, with a knowing smile. When he’s not making music he’s “reading comic books all day and staring out the window, imagining my own little worlds. I’m deep into my little surrealist fantasies right now, I’m way deep in there.”

Mr Washington has been called the de facto CEO of the new jazz revolution, which started around when he appeared on Mr Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly album in 2015 and has since spread to London, where a young jazz scene is in full flight. He’s also been busy making movies. He’s in London this week not just to headline a show at Brixton’s O2 Academy, but for a run of screenings of his hypnagogic mini-film As Told To G/D Thyself, which he has co-directed with a collective of filmmakers called the Ummah Chroma that includes Ms Jenn Nkiru, who created the Louvre visuals for Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s “Apes**t” video, and Selma cinematographer Mr Bradford Young.

The short film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last month and was inspired by the sweeping suites of Mr Washington’s second full-length release, 2018’s double-sided concept album Heaven And Earth. Mr Washington was already a big name in the jazz world prior to his sophomore record, having released a critically acclaimed debut, The Epic, played at Coachella with a choir and launched an EP at the Whitney Museum. But the majestic-sounding Heaven And Earth could be said to have tipped him further into mainstream consciousness. The record topped end-of-year lists everywhere and at the recent Brit Awards he was nominated in the Best International Male category alongside Eminem and Drake.

Why the album struck such a chord is, “one of those impossible questions,” he says, but it’s potentially to do with fans recognising authenticity regardless of genre. “I feel like we relate to each other much more than we think we do, and if you really pour yourself into anything in a true way, people will resonate with that.” In 2019 we may need heroes now more than ever, but Mr Washington feels ambivalent about being the face of the new jazz uprising. “I can only be a spokesperson for myself,” he says. “People look for leadership, it’s the way the world works, [but it’s] the reverse of what I’m saying, which is ‘be your own leader’.”

Reluctant as he may be to assume the responsibility of jazz music’s new torchbearer, Mr Washington does, at least, dress the part. Today he resembles a Far Eastern emperor, in a quilted long coat with chunky hook-eye fastenings down the middle and a black velvet shirt with Chinese button knots designed by the “underground genius” designer Ms Tiffany Wright. But he has decorated the majestic jacket with a selection of pop-culture pins, including one of his hero Mr Bruce Lee, whose 1972 film Fist Of Fury inspired much of Heaven And Earth. “I guess alchemy is my thing,” he says, describing his style. “I like mixing things together.”

It’s an eclecticism he brings to his music, combining what you might call traditional jazz with elements of sweeping soul, interstellar funk and African polyrhythms. Likewise, in As Told To G/D Thyself, which is rather like a series of dream-like vignettes, shot in varying styles and held together loosely by Heaven And Earth’s idealistic concept of a young boy going on a journey, “in which you learn who you are and that you have a piece of this world that is yours, and you’re able to make that what you want it to be.”

Like improv jazz, perhaps, the film doesn’t quite make complete logical sense, but Mr Washington says it is open to interpretation. There are shots of a man in a blood-red, voluminous outfit that looks like something Björk would wear, as snow falls in a forest; another of a man praying next to a table with a book called Black Rage, his face distorted. Mr Washington, meanwhile, appears throughout like a narrator, haunting corridors and bleak Baltimore landscapes with his sax.

  • A still from As Told To G/D Thyself. Courtesy of Technique

A growing number of television shows and films, including Atlanta, Sorry To Bother You and Random Acts Of Flyness – the latter created by another of Mr Washington’s co-directors, Mr Terence Nance – are said to be signalling a new wave of black surrealism in artAs Told To G/D Thyself would certainly seem to fit this description, too. Mr Washington can see why such thinking is attractive at the moment. “To be able to create a world that’s beyond the world that we live in,” he says, “means that we can create a world that doesn’t have unnecessary hardships. Racism, bigotry – these harsh, unfortunate realities of the world we live in affect us. They are a part of our story.”

However, he adds, “I don’t think I’d be less interested in fantasy, space or surrealism if I lived in a world where there was no racism. Those things help us deal with those realities, but those realities are not the catalyst for me.”

While his first album was, in part, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement – indeed he was called its “jazz voice” – Mr Washington suggests that he hopes the film’s themes are perceived as more universal. “The black experience is a human experience,” he says. “There are things that black people have experienced on this earth that are unique [and] there are particular scenes in the film that are definitely speaking on that [but] I feel like most of the experiences can be reflected by people who aren’t black as well.”

One scene set in a school could have been a more personal moment. It shows a young boy playing a saxophone with his eyes closed, only for it to be replaced by a flute. Though he says the boy could be anyone, Mr Washington himself was, at one point, set to pursue science instead of jazz. “Maybe this is a reality of the black experience,” he muses. “School is meant to be a place where you further your potential and your future. You go there to learn and gain opportunities but for a lot of people it’s the reverse: you go to school and your opportunities are taken from you, you get expelled. Or they take something that you had a connection to and try to give you something that wasn’t really meant for you.”

Thank goodness he wrested his instrument back. Later that evening he performs with London-based drummer Mr Yussef Dayes and saxophonist Ms Nubya Garcia, two stars of the UK’s emerging jazz scene. What’s seductive about this, and any jazz scene at the moment anywhere, says Mr Washington, is how real it feels. “There’s an excitement for the music,” he says. “People are there not because they want to be famous one day [but] just because they want to make something beautiful. The music is freeing their spirit, it’s filling their hearts with joy, and you can feel that, you can feel the purity of it.”

Like we said, totally cosmic.

As Told To G/D Thyself is showing on loop from 12.00pm to 7.00pm at The Store X, 180 The Strand until Sunday, 10 March.