Following his work on albums by Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington’s lush, high-velocity Seventies-indebted jazz has become somewhat of a sensation. His triple-disc, three-hour 2015 debut, The Epic, has brought him to this year’s Coachella and Bonnaroo; and, this summer, he will hit more than a half-dozen European fests. Washington’s live shows mirror the outsized feel of The Epic: He takes the stage with a seven-piece band that features Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr. performing dueling drum solos and vocalist Patrice Quinn adding floating melodies. Rolling Stone caught up with Washington at a tour stop in Ottawa to find out how this Johnny Appleseed of old-school jazz tailors his performances for each city.
Is there any challenge on bringing so many people on the road with you?
I mean the main challenge is just transportation. On some of the shows when you have, like, a throw-and-go, you got 15 minutes to get ready, trying to pull together two drum sets and, you know, Brandon Coleman has a pretty elaborate keyboard rig. That can be a little difficult but we always manage to find a way to make it happen.
Touring two drum sets around must be an enormous pain.
[Laughs] Yeah. It’s definitely difficult but you know, it would be equally difficult to not have both musicians and that sound.
For places like Bonnaroo, this is going to be a lot of people’s first jazz show. Do you put anything into your set with that in mind?
I don’t think about it in those terms. I usually try to get out a little bit into the city and catch the vibe of where I’m at. And also I’ll try to kind try to get the vibe of where we’re at as a band. That’s how I make the set: Something that it matches those two things.
Can you give an example?
Well, I mean, Bonnaroo was one of them. We walked around the festival a lot and it sets a kinda free, kinda almost Woodstock-esque, people kinda connected to the ground that they’re standing on kind of place. Yesterday we were in Montreal and there was all this really cool graffiti art and there was kind of a avant-garde energy to the city. Or at least the part of the city that we were in. Both of those kind of affected us and our energy.
What’s the difference between what you do at a set at like the Blue Note and a set at Bonnaroo?
I try to really kind of make it custom-made to the place that I’m at. So, at the Blue Note, you just feel that history of jazz. You can feel it in the walls. So, that’s going to kind of pull that out of me. … I might get that same vibe at somewhere like Bonnaroo. Like the Grateful Dead was there … Ornette Coleman. Stuff like that will kind of just affect you, you know? It’s not like I necessarily look at it like, “Oh, a festival crowd, we’re only like this and a jazz crowd like that.” Because people surprise you, you know? What you expect to go over their head sometimes hits them right in the chest.
It’s really something that you can do in jazz more than a rock band: “OK, we’re going to go out and play our 14 songs.”
Yeah, and I try to make the songs different, too. I’ll change the tempo or the key or the feel or the arrangement and that also will breathe new life. Sometimes the songs are almost unrecognizable. I treat each show just like a moment in time. Let’s capture this particular moment.
“What you expect to go over their head sometimes hits them right in the chest.”
Was there a city or a moment that made you go way out there, way out of your comfort zone?
We were in Nîmes, France. There was like an impressionist French vibe. We played “Clair de Lune” and we end up playing the song in a very romantic kind of way, which is not how we normally do it. Going way out and going way avant-garde and abstract is kind of like home base for us. Kind of going romantic and soft and, like, really subtle was a bit different for us, you know?
What about making sure everyone in your band is on the same page as you?
It’s a daily struggle [laughs]. Nah, I mean we’ve known each other so long that we end up on the same page eventually. There’s almost more like the struggle of, you know, which page are we going to end up on? Each person can kind of pull the music in a different direction but eventually we are coming to a consensus. You can feel it. We always just kind of fall in line. Sometimes it may not be like what you felt like doing but you just know, “Oh, that’s the vibe. I can’t deny it.”
On this particular tour, especially at Bonnaroo, are you hearing people say to you, “This is my first jazz show and I didn’t know what to expect.” Are you getting some feedback from people who are new on board?
Basically every show I hear that. It’s either, like, “Your album was the first jazz album I listened to” or like, “My friend took me to this show and I’ve never been to a jazz show before but, man, I’m so happy I came. I can’t wait to go home and see more.” And you can feel it in the crowd, too. You can see the groups of people that don’t really know what to expect. And then we start playing and you can kind of see them … It’s like in the space station when the ship’s attached. You can see them, like, honing in and then the airlock happens and then we’re all together. By the end of the show, we’re all kind of one mind.
Do you feel any kind of pressure to be that person for so many people?
I don’t look at it as pressure. I look at it as an opportunity.