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.
I think the open mind is the one that’s reachable. You look at something like this political race or something like that, and you see that there’s a lot of closed minds out there. And with closed minds also come closed eyes, closed ears and everything else. And so people becoming open to jazz … It’s a very self-expressive, very inclusive music. It’s rarely about one individual. And I think that that energy — that idea as it spreads amongst people — is a sign of other things being there as well. So for me, being a part of that is … I don’t know. When I think about it, it kinda freaks me out a little bit [laughs]. But even more, I get excited about it. The door is open. It’s great. I look at it as an opportunity. And I haven’t really had a lot of time to freak out. “You look at something like this political race … and you see that there’s a lot of closed minds out there,” says Washington.
Speaking of opportunities for the music, I’m guessing you saw your sometime collaborators Kendrick Lamar and saxophonist Terrace Martin performing at the Grammys.
Oh, absolutely. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen in my life!
What does it mean to see artists like Lamar and Martin creating those theatrical, political images as part of a network television broadcast?
Yeah, things like that happening — on that stage — it’s a sign from the world that counterbalances some other things, you know? It’s definitely a sign of the world heading in a cool direction, in some ways.
And when you’re thinking of, let’s say the “less cool” directions, you mean the presidential race?
Yeah. Like, Donald Trump being at the forefront of that, on the Republican side, is a bit daunting. Just considering some of the statements he’s made. But you know, life is balance like that. One side is getting totally out of whack. And music is kinda getting more in tune to what’s happening.
Does the current public conversation around hip-hop and jazz — coming out of the response to your own record as well as To Pimp a Butterfly — feel like it really “gets” the connection between the traditions?
Well, I think that it’s a relationship that people talk about being new. But it’s something that’s always been there. You know, if you listen to so many of the great hip-hop records from the past, there are always jazz samples in there. So someone in there has an awareness and an understanding of jazz.
And the energy of hip-hop and the energy of jazz are coming from a similar place. The whole repurposing of music: the way hip-hop uses samples to create new songs, and in jazz, how we take show tunes and turn them into standards. And thinking about what jazz was in the bebop era — it was our way of expressing our intellect and expressing who we were. The thing about hip-hop is, like, that the instruments were taken out of schools. But: You might have taken the instruments out of schools, but we’ll take the records and sing over them! Hip-hop and jazz have always been intertwined. Even the G-funk thing. You listen to The Chronic, there’s flute solos and everything. It’s always been there.
And going back even further, with the original P-Funk material, you’ve got keyboardist Bernie Worrell’s experience with improvisation and music theory feeding into that rich sound.
Oh, yeah. Funk in general — I mean, we give it a different name. We called it something else, which was fine. But it could have easily been called jazz, you know? It definitely fits all the criteria. “If you listen to so many of the great hip-hop records from the past, there are always jazz samples in there,” Washington says. Mike Park
The Epic was recorded a while back. How has your playing changed since then? Especially with all the touring you’ve been doing?
Ah, I’m much more comfortable with myself. I was getting there, when we were recording The Epic. But since then … when you play music, there’s almost like a third entity that kind of tells you what the music wants you to do. You either listen to it or you don’t. And a lot of times, you know like as a musician, you want to show what you can do. And sometimes that’s not always in line with what the music wants. So there’s that. And harmonically, I definitely opened myself up. I’ve changed up in the way that I approach, on a technical level, certain things. On the newer songs I’m writing right now, I’m not thinking in a diatonic sense. … They’re not in any particular kind of key. It opens up a different approach.
Do you have a timeline for recording a follow-up to The Epic?
You know, I’m trying to get to the studio in the next couple of months. I’m going to Hawaii and Australia — and [so maybe] before that and after that. In my mind, I have plans for more large-ensemble stuff: doing some brass ensembles and not just things with the choir. … It’s hard to say exactly; it’s all in my head right now. … I’ve been messing around with recording myself over and over again. Like a 32-piece saxophone thing. Just for a demo, for a song. And I’m like, “Hey, that sounds cool. Maybe it’s something I want to do for real.”
I also have this graphic novel that I’m working on — this story that inspired me to put out my album in its entirety, instead of reducing it down to a single CD. I had a dream [with] a story that encompassed all the songs [on The Epic], which really led me to have the conviction that I was really going to put it out. So I’m creating a graphic novel for that. I’m trying to help my friends — who also recorded albums when I was recording my album — put their albums out. And it’s a [huge] task — though I’ve done it twice in L.A. — to do a live show that has the full strings and the choir and the full band [behind The Epic]. But I want to try to get that out to other places, outside of L.A. as well.
Maybe the prize money can help with that.
Yeah, it definitely makes it easier — especially when I’m thinking about brass ensembles for my next record — to not have to think about budget. Sometimes it’s a good thing and sometimes it’s a bad thing, but I’m not always so practical in my musical endeavors.