Listeners who have long wondered why the U.K. gets to use the annual Mercury Prize as an excuse to celebrate some innovative, recent recording of note, while America is stuck with the Grammys, are about to be vindicated. Organizers behind this year’s inaugural American Music Prize have banded together to give a gaggle of handpicked U.S. critics and judges (including Rolling Stone‘s Nathan Brackett and David Fricke) the chance to honor an artist who will receive a résumé-boosting garland — as well as a $25,000 cash prize.
The hook for the stateside contest is that it’s meant to award the best debut album of the foregoing year. The 2016 prize has been given to saxophonist-composer Kamasi Washington and his 2015 triple-CD odyssey, The Epic, which was the first jazz release to cross over to mainstream music audiences in some time. (It also holds the No. 41 slot on Rolling Stone‘s 50 Best Albums of 2015 list.) The Epic beat out 11 other strong AMP nominees, including Chris Stapleton’s Traveller, Leon Bridges’ Coming Home, Shamir’s Ratchet and Tweedy’s Sukierae.
The possibility of a breakout year for Washington was primed, in part, by the saxophonist’s work on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. But The Epic still had to make good on the enthusiasm that fans of Lamar’s jazz-inflected opus brought to it — and managed to do so with its novel synthesis of soul-jazz classicism, R&B fusion, Washington’s own tenor-sax soloing, and his soaring writing for a string section and choir.
Rolling Stone spoke with Washington on the phone not long after he found out he had been selected as the winner of the American Music Prize, but before the results were announced on Wednesday morning. He shared his thoughts on his recent breakout success, watching Lamar’s unforgettable Grammy performance and his plans for his next album.
This award follows a big year for you. When a rush of success occurs in that way, does it affect your creative process or change how you think of what you’re doing in the short term?
I was actually on the road when I found out [about the American Music Prize]. And I felt, you know, it was very cool! [Laughs] When you’re writing music, you don’t really know how it’s going to be received. All the appreciation definitely inspires you to keep pushing. It’s been amazing, the reception and the success and the milestones for my career, for sure. I mean, for me, I’m trying not to let all this … distract me too much. I’m trying to just keep pushing on the things I’ve been wanting to do in my life and in music. And think of new things to do!
Does it feel different, these days, to be playing jazz for sold-out club audiences?
I look at it as something that I’ve wanted to have happen. Just in general: people opening up to this music. I think there’s a bigger sign there. Like, going from being open to jazz to just being kind of more open in general. And I think that’s a good thing, across the board.