Arguably the most forward-thinking jazz artist of his generation, Los Angeles saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington has never hesitated to step outside his comfort zone. He’s logged studio time with Kendrick Lamar and St. Vincent, and performed onstage with Lauryn Hill and Snoop Dogg. But he’s most famous as the visionary bandleader behind sprawling albums like “The Epic” and “Heaven and Earth,” where song lengths routinely stretch beyond 10 minutes, and nearly three-hour runtimes are standard issue. So it required a massive change of focus for him to craft the score to Nadia Hallgren’s Michelle Obama documentary “Becoming” (Netflix), composing and performing miniature jazz suites whose brevity proves no obstacle to Washington’s typical musical adventurousness. It seems the effort was worth it: he is nominated for an Emmy in the docuseries or special music composition category.
What convinced you to sign on to score “Becoming”?
Nadia actually hit me up at the start of this year, and when I heard about what her film was I was definitely super curious. Then we met up and she played me a rough cut, and I thought it was really powerful. I was definitely onboard at that point. So then doing it just became a matter of figuring out the timing, because they were still in production and still doing a lot of editing, and I had a pretty hectic touring schedule last year and even the beginning of this year. So it ended up being the kind of thing where we both had a two-week window where we could work on it. But the interest was there as soon as I saw it.
Did Nadia sketch out musical ideas she had for the score, or was it mostly left up to you to find your way around it?
She talked more about what the meanings of different scenes were, and the ideas that Michelle Obama was trying to get across. It was more talking about that than it was about any particular musical focus. It was more like, “It needs to feel like this, this scene is trying to say this” and then me trying to interpret that. Because feelings are complex to translate to music, you know. Like, “sad” and “lonely” are different emotions, but they have a very similar color to them, and you need to make sure you find the right shade. So my process was all about matching sound to energy.
There’s obviously a long history of musicians coming from a jazz background and expanding into film scoring, whether it’s Sonny Rollins or Miles Davis or Quincy Jones. Was there anyone that you used as a model for how to score in a jazz idiom?
Not really, because this was something that’s about giving a glimpse into Michelle Obama’s life. So I never really thought about how to match that up with another film. What I did do was listen to some of Michelle Obama’s playlists to try to get a feel for where her heart lands, musically. But after that, it was more about connecting each individual theme. And honestly, all of those old jazz film scores kind of live in me because I’ve listened to so many of them in my life, so I’m sure they made their way in there subconsciously, but never deliberately.
What did you take from listening to her playlists? Was there a common denominator to her tastes?
The common denominator I found was that there’s a kind of melancholy joy in a lot of the music she’s into. A lot of sun shining through the rainy clouds. A lot of Motown-ish tendencies. But then, she also has a very strong connection to jazz as well. Those scenes where she’s talking about her father and her family gave me a chance to really lean into that — I started thinking about, “What album would she be listening to if she were going to sit back and reminisce on these moments in her life?”
How much of a challenge was it to deal with the brevity of a typical film score cue, as opposed to stretching out like you would on one of your own records?
You do have to turn on a different mindset. Normally, the way we make music, we’re really trying to let the spirit of the music take us where it wants to go. But this is more direct, so I’m not coming at it with the mindset of “whatever happens, happens”; it’s “I need for this to happen.” But it was fun to be more deliberate. That’s a valid approach, too. It definitely made us more focused, which was good considering the incredibly short amount of time we had to put it all together.
But did you enjoy that process? Would you take on a film score again?
Oh, absolutely. It helps to find places in yourself that you didn’t know were there. In this score, there were levels of joy that we wanted to bring through the music, and I don’t think I’d ever made something that bright. [Laughs] It’s different, and it’s not a replacement to making my own albums, but it was a really fulfilling way to create, looking at everything as a collaboration.
How have you been holding up during lockdown?
It’s been a real roller-coaster of emotions. It’s like being removed from the thing that you love most, which for me is playing music with people. Playing music for myself is cool, but playing with other people is what I truly love most. I’ve only played music with other people twice since March, and I don’t think I’d ever gone that long without it since…ever. But having this time to work, I’ve been doing a lot of writing and reflecting, just thinking about life and the world. I’m kind of a history buff, so I’ve been re-reading a lot of books, going back over a lot of stuff, just kind of reassessing my understanding of who am I, what world do I live in, and why is the world I live in the way it is? When you’re out there moving the way I normally am, those thoughts are fleeting at best, passing in between a whole series of other things. So when the world finally does go back to normal, I think there’ll be some interesting things for me to pull from.