Way Out West: How Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington, and Brainfeeder Are Bringing Jazz Back to the People
Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, and Flying Lotus, image by Lia Kantrowitz
You’re listening to a jazz record. There are the frantic, slightly irregular drums; the thrumming of an upright bass; virtuosic runs on some invisible Steinway—all punctuated with the familiar crooning of a tenor sax. The melody, consciously separate from the genre’s well-worn standards, could easily pass for a new composition. But it’s not. It’s an acoustic rendition of “Never Catch Me,” the Kendrick Lamar-featuring first single off electronic music producer Flying Lotus's 2014 album You’re Dead!. Drummer Kendrick Scott chose the genre-bending song as the only cover on his upcoming album We Are The Drum, due out this September on legendary jazz label Blue Note. “It's a transcription of Lamar’s rap, it traces the flow and rhythm,” says Scott in the album’s press release. “Raps are an extension of what we do as drummers… A kind of a search for a new form.”
“At what point is Flying Lotus just considered a jazz artist?” one weary Redditor queried soon after the release of You’re Dead!, which, despite its very blatant roots in jazz fusion (and general critical acclaim), was almost automatically omitted from the purview of jazz critics themselves, to whom Flying Lotus is, irrevocably, an electronic artist. The line was more difficult to draw for the denizens of Reddit, who (naturally) debated the topic at length: Can you make jazz music without playing an instrument? Does Flying Lotus improvise? For every given ideologue of spontaneity, there were corresponding lists of famous jazz composers (Charlie Mingus, Duke Ellington); for every seemingly definitive criterion, there was a potent counterexample. Among the dissenters was user billymcgee, who concluded that “every time you hear ‘Never Catch Me,’ it will sound approximately the same.”
“It's an interesting question,” says saxophonist Kamasi Washington, whose recent album The Epic was released on Flying Lotus's Brainfeeder label. The album has quickly turned him from LA scene stalwart to the jazz world’s hottest new act. “Jazz is just a term. For me, it's a very misused term because it's either too narrow or too wide. What is jazz? If Jelly Roll Morton is jazz and John Coltrane is jazz, then how can you say that Flying Lotus isn't jazz?”
Aficionados (like those found on r/Jazz) relish the chance to add and exclude new members of the genre’s vaunted elect just as readily as its musicians push to ignore the label, now saddled with a century of baggage, altogether. “Black American Music” has become the preferred term for a certain sector of the genre, while others in the avant-garde embrace “contemporary art music.” Yet jazz persists, as music and nomenclature, probably because as Washington puts it, “If it's not called jazz, what would you call this? It can't fit any term other than that.”
Pulling the question into focus is the fact that Washington’s acclaimed album has effortlessly breached the often-impenetrable wall between jazz and, well, not-jazz, earning laudatory coverage from the same websites and publications that promote new Future singles. Debut albums from jazz musicians do not, traditionally, get reviewed by Rolling Stone or Pitchfork. Brainfeeder’s roots in LA’s underground beat music scene mean that it already has a young and curious audience, as well as the attention of the press outlets that they read. More easily than even the label itself expected, they were able to use that influence to make listening to jazz cool again.
Kamasi Washington, photo by Mike Park courtesy of Kamasi Washington
“Honestly we weren't prepared,” says Brainfeeder manager Adam Stover. “We had everything in place, but we did a certain number of pressings of the record, and the demand just completely exceeded that. We had to repress thousands and thousands of CDs.” In addition to the Brainfeeder affiliation (and, of course, the music) Washington has stood apart from his jazz cohort thanks to his prominent appearance on Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp A Butterfly just a few months prior to The Epic’s release. “It launched it into the stratosphere,” says Stover of the fortuitous timing, which he says was unintentional. To become 2015’s most discussed jazz musician by appearing on one of the year’s top hip-hop albums, though, is still fairly improbable.
“It’s put the industry on notice, in my mind,” says Grammy-winning trumpet player Terence Blanchard (another Blue Note signee) of The Epic’s success. “People are talking about it, and he put it [out] on Brainfeeder—not any of the major labels. There's a big paradigm shift going on in this country, in the world. I think that album represents a big part of that shift.” While the album may seem to have almost emerged from the ether (Washington has, still, barely played outside Los Angeles as a bandleader), it’s actually the fruit of a longstanding and completely distinct musical community, woven through the worlds of hip-hop, electronic music, and jazz—it just took a similarly unique label to bring the sounds of that community to the people.
“The next album forthcoming from Brainfeeder might, at first sight, appear to be something of a change in direction for the label,” intone the promotional materials for Austin Peralta’s 2011 record Endless Planets, “but nothing could be further from the truth.” Peralta, a 21-year-old prodigy who had already released two albums of jazz standards for Sony Music Japan, was the man responsible for “Brainfeeder's introduction to a straight-ahead kind of jazz band,” according to Flying Lotus (a.k.a. Steven Ellison). But Brainfeeder has been moving towards the jazz world almost since its inception in 2008—a transition that those familiar with Flying Lotus's background may have long predicted.
The grand-nephew of Alice Coltrane—yes, as in John Coltrane’s second wife (and an innovative musician in her own right)—Ellison says he “got exposed to a lot of this stuff, new and old, from a young age. I always had respect for the sound.” His family sponsored LA’s John Coltrane Jazz Festival, where he recalls, “Thundercat [a.k.a. Stephen Bruner], Ronald [Bruner, Stephen’s brother], and Kamasi actually played when they were teenagers. We didn't know each other then.” (It was in 1999, and the group, known as Kamasi Washington and the Young Jazz Giants, won that year’s competition.)
Ellison’s third studio album, Cosmogramma, came in 2010—not long after he and Bruner finally met.“That was kind of where things started to show up as far as jazz and FlyLo,” says Stover of the album, which features Thundercat, Ellison’s cousin Ravi Coltrane, and Thom Yorke, among others.
“When I started hanging around people like Thundercat and Kamasi, I felt like I had more confidence to pursue [jazz],” Ellison says. Despite his genealogical ties to LA’s jazz scene, seeing the city’s long-standing community firsthand still surprised the producer. “I was like, 'How is this happening? These guys are so young and killing,” he says. “No one knows about this, everybody's complaining about how jazz sucks, and then these guys who play the Piano Bar, this little bar in the middle of LA, every Wednesday and just smash. Like, what the hell, how did I not know about all this stuff?”
He wasn’t the only one who had overlooked the small but committed group of players. “My relationship to [the larger jazz scene] has been an anonymous relationship—it's almost like somehow they had no idea what we were doing on our own,” says Washington.
Thundercat, photo courtesy of Thundercat
“In LA, there's not as huge of a spotlight, though there's obviously been some great people who've come out of LA throughout the years,” Stover adds, alluding to jazz icons like Dexter Gordon, Charlie Mingus, Roy Ayers, and Billy Higgins. “For the most part, they've been totally free to just do whatever they want, and that's kind of our ethos with the label. There's this freedom, and nobody's got this expectation that you've got to live up to these bigger figures from history. You can just put ten friends in a room who all know how to play really well, and they're just going to jam out this fresh thing.”
The West Coast Get Down, as former Piano Bar residents are called, has been playing together since high school—though then it was under a far more utilitarian name: Reggie Andrews’ Multi-School Jazz Band. In Andrews’ band (an extracurricular program for the then-high schoolers), Washington and both Bruners joined bassist Miles Mosley, drummer Tony Austin, keyboard player Brandon Coleman, pianist Cameron Graves, and trombonist Ryan Porter, continuing the musical relationships that began when many of them were growing up together around South Central LA.
“I was fortunate to grow up being exposed to a lot of [jazz],” says Stephen. “Not in a corny way, where it was like somebody's going, ‘You don't know nothing about this, you young bastard! This is Roy Ayers!’ We'd learn like four or five Gerald Wilson tunes to play at the Playboy Jazz Festival every year with Reggie Andrews—[we were part of] that whole institution. It was just genuine. I feel almost blessed and spoiled to be able to say that I come from that kind of lineage out here.”
The West Coast Get Down, photo by Mike Park courtesy of Kamasi Washington
Many members of the West Coast Get Down made their living in LA’s massive studio scene, but they remained committed to their residency at the Piano Bar, creating a night that became known as one of the city’s premier music events (an Amoeba Records salesperson even told this writer to go during a 2013 visit to LA). “We always played for audiences that wouldn't have considered themselves jazz fans,” says Washington of the residency. “They sometimes wouldn't realize we were playing jazz. They just liked it. People would come up and ask, ‘What kind of music is that? I see, with the upright bass—is that jazz?’ “
Soon after they met, Ellison approached Kamasi about doing a record for Brainfeeder. “I hadn't ever tried to talk to anyone about doing an album on a label before,” he says. “When they first asked me if I wanted to do an album for Brainfeeder, I asked [Ellison], ‘What kind of album do you want me to make?’ He didn't give me any parameters—he was like, ‘Whatever you want to make.’ “
“I told Kamasi,” Ellison adds, “Just do you to the fullest. Make your statement, make the thing that only you can make. Do whatever you want.” Kamasi told Stover it might take him a little time to get the record together. This was in 2010.
Around the same time, Ellison met Peralta through audio-visual artist Strangeloop (who’s responsible for FlyLo’s hypnotic onstage setup). “I brought [Peralta] around, and he already knew Thundercat,” says Ellison. “It was like, ‘Oh, this makes sense. Everyone's kind of got history.’”
“[Austin] turned in this record that was a straight jazz piano record, and said, ‘I want to put this out,’” recalls Stover. “Steve [Ellison] was like, ‘I love it, let's do it.’ As someone who'd, for the most part, put out a lot of electronic beat music, I was like, ‘What are we going to do with this?’ I was a little perplexed, because it was such a different genre.” The album, a searching, evocative piece, showed off Peralta’s chops without leaning on them. “I think this is what [jazz] needs,” Peralta told the LA Record in 2011. “Jazz can be so stuffy and the audiences can be so pompous, that it needs that kind of reception, it needs that kind of audience, it needs that kind of energy. Who’s to say that punk rock is more hardcore than jazz? It’s not true.”
He quickly became integral to the Brainfeeder collective, contributing to Thundercat’s debut The Golden Age of Apocalypse and Flying Lotus's 2012 album Until the Quiet Comes. If anyone at Brainfeeder had doubts about embracing the term jazz, Peralta’s virtuosity and success evaporated them. “I’m a jazz musician,” Bruner told Passion of the Weiss shortly after his album was released. “Improvisation is where I come from.” “This is a step in direction of where I want Brainfeeder to go,” Ellison said then of Peralta’s affiliation with the label. The pianist died unexpectedly in late 2012—he was just 22 years old.
“I consider it to be a jazz record,” says Ellison of You’re Dead!—the album that earned the unique distinction of having almost all its reviewers use the word jazz without actually being classified as a part of that genre.
It was a conscious choice on Ellison’s part: a reaction the the jazz world’s conservatism. Of most of the music released today, the producer says, “It sounds cool, but I don't know who it is. Not a lot of individuality and diversity in the sounds. It's perfect. Everyone did 50,000 takes just to use the one that sounds perfect.”
“It's almost like [jazz] isolated itself after a period of time,” adds Bruner, whose music has also often skirted the border between jazz and pop. “I've been called an elitist by a couple of my friends a couple of times. They're like, what are you listening for?”
“More than that, I feel like there has been a disconnect or a rift,” he concludes.
Flying Lotus, photo courtesy of Flying Lotus
At first glance, the general reluctance to label Flying Lotus a jazz artist makes sense. After all, little about Flying Lotus's public image (except perhaps his family) says “jazz musician.” Where jazz traditionally means acoustic instruments in cozy clubs and increasingly, the gilded theaters of the world’s music institutions (Jazz at Lincoln Center chief among them), Lotus's music is most frequently experienced as inspiration for an earthshaking dance party (with nary a Steinway in sight). If you aren’t feeling the bass to your very core, you’re doing it wrong. Yet, in spirit at the very least, that makes it a worthy continuation of and refreshing jolt of energy into jazz's legacy as a boundary-pushing genre.
Herbie Hancock, an iconic part of that legacy, wasn’t perturbed by Flying Lotus’s choice of venue (or subwoofers). The jazz pianist and composer's lengthy credits include membership in Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet, and creating some of the genre’s most beloved standards. Ellison was referred to Hancock (according to the jazz giant) numerous times as one of the “young people who might be interesting to work with,” so he invited Ellison and Bruner to his studio. The collaboration eventually resulted in the You’re Dead! tracks “Tesla,” which Ellison described as “the spark of the album,” and “Moment of Hesitation.” Hancock reportedly said later of his new musical partners, “If Miles was around today, he'd be hanging out with you guys.”
Meanwhile across town, at the studio of a different musical titan, another jazz-inflected record was coming together: To Pimp A Butterfly. The albums’ common cast of characters is striking—along with Flying Lotus, Thundercat, and Kamasi, both feature Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar.
“I would be working on Kendrick's album and Lotus's album almost at the same time,” Bruner told Billboard. “Thunder [Bruner] had been working on [TPAB] for almost 2 years,” adds Stover. “I literally have demos on my computer that are the core of those tracks, before they became what they became, because they were from older demos that Thunder had made.” Bruner’s cousin Terrace Martin was similarly integral to the record. A trained jazz musician who cut his teeth alongside the West Coast Get Down crew, he made his name as a hip-hop producer for artists like Wiz Khalifa and Snoop Dogg (he also produced YG’s newest single, an unrepentant tribute to G-funk). Martin is credited (sometimes multiple times) on just about every TPAB track.
Lamar’s decision to tap jazz musicians for his album (jazz scene heroes Robert Glasper and Ambrose Akinmusire also appear) put him on the front edge of a mini-jazz/hip-hop bubble. Less than a month after its release, Tyler, the Creator (a fellow LA rapper) dropped Cherry Bomb, which featured LA’s own Roy Ayers. “I sent [Ayers] the song I wanted him on,” Tyler told Tavis Smiley, “and he was just like, ‘Tyler, these changes are cold, man!’ To hear someone like him, who’s been doing this just since forever, acknowledge someone like me was awesome.” Rap legend Ghostface Killah chose to lay his verses down over the hip-hop-infused sounds of youthful Toronto jazz trio BadBadNotGood on their recent album Sour Soul. And Chance the Rapper took a step out of the spotlight and into the collective Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment on his latest release, Surf—a project not as irrefutably jazz as a Herbie Hancock solo, but certainly inflected with the genre’s sensibilities.
None of this is new, of course. Hip-hop has been sampling jazz almost since day one and using live bands since the days of Run-D.M.C. Washington, Martin, and Bruner all did stints in Snoop’s touring band (“Man, you have to play all them notes?” Bruner once recalled the rapper asking him onstage). Miles Davis’s last record, the “jazz rap” Doo-Bop, was produced by Easy Mo Bee, the same man who was behind the soundboard for “Party and Bullshit.”
Photo by Mike Park, courtesy of Kamasi Washington
Kamasi Washington’s The Epic, though, isn’t hip-hop or jazz rap. It’s jazz—sweeping, uncompromising jazz in the tradition of high concept bandleaders like Sun-Ra. The name “The Epic” isn’t a euphemism, either: The project is three discs long, coming in at 173 unrelenting minutes. “The first chance he took was just by releasing so much music,” says Terence Blanchard. “I know some people probably tried to talk him out of that.” Washington himself said that were it not for Brainfeeder, he didn’t “even think it would have gotten out, to be honest with you. Just even the size of it, and the reasoning why I wanted to put it out.”
On some level, a label’s reluctance to put out a three-disc album from an artist virtually unknown outside of LA—a jazz artist—would be understandable (as Robert Glasper once put it, "I have to compete with Louis Armstrong everytime I’m on charts"). But in defying common sense, Brainfeeder hit the jackpot.
“You make music because you think it's cool—anyone who tells you know know how it's going to be received is kind of lying to you,” says Washington. “I could tell you that I thought it was cool. But I couldn't have told you that I thought it would get received the way it did.”
“I was so surprised at how Kamasi's record went down, and how it's still going,” adds Ellison. “I didn't know if people would respond to it.” Brainfeeder’s status as a tastemaking label, though, was almost certainly part of the record’s improbable success. “I think my fans kind of expect something like [The Epic] from me,” he says. “Because I established kind of a jazz thing with my own music, it just set the tone a little bit for potential releases.”
Brainfeeder is bringing jazz to people who don’t listen to jazz—an impossible dream for most jazz labels. “It's up in the ears of many people that would have never even looked if it hadn't happened in this context and built this sort of buzz,” says Stover. Jazz is a genre that easily gets crushed under the weight of its own impressive legacy, with countless storied names and an overall air of self-seriousness that can intimidate newcomers. Artists like Thundercat, Flying Lotus, and Kamasi Washington are switching up the context with their unpretentious approach, taking jazz out of the ivory tower and broadening the reach of their own music in the process.
“I've filled up two passports playing music,” adds Kamasi, who is about to embark on his first tour as a bandleader. “But somehow my own music has never really left my hometown.” That’s all changing, though.
“Now this man, instead of going around the world playing other people's music, he goes around the world playing his own music,” says Ellison of Kamasi. “That's a reason to do the label for me. That's why I want to do this, to see things like that happen.” There’s more to come, too. “These guys who've been playing together for like 15 years—they now have a home,” says Ellison of Brainfeeder’s future in jazz.
“What's happened with Kamasi's record is what I would like to see happen with many other records we're looking at,” adds Stover, “where our fanbase has come to it and now they love it. They want to look to us to put out records of that caliber and of that flavor.” The label’s next jazz release? Nothing’s confirmed yet, but Ellison says, in typically nonchalant fashion, that one idea floating around is to “have Kamasi kind of oversee a jazz compilation made up of all the homies.”
The fearless optimism of Brainfeeder and the many musicians who fall into its orbit is, as Kendrick Lamar's home label TDE is for hip-hop, reviving a long-unappreciated independent streak along the country’s left coast. How else would one tight-knit community, most of whom didn’t go to conservatory and eschewed the traditional markers of industry success, put out the year’s most talked about jazz and hip-hop albums (so far)?
“That's just how we do out here,” Kamasi concludes. “You go to the World Stage, and there's a jam session with all these gospel musicians and hip-hop producers. Maybe the only tune they know is ‘Blue Bossa.’ But so what—we're gonna play ‘Blue Bossa’. Three times. It's gonna sound like ‘Gin and Juice’.”
Natalie Weiner is a writer living in New York. Follow her on Twitter.