Jazz drummer Kevin Washington: 'You have to change the music'

Kevin Washington
Jazz musician Kevin Washington plays the guitar during an rehearsal with his band, Kevin Washington Quartet +1, before the recording at MPR's Studio M on Monday, Oct. 20, 2014 in St. Paul, Minn.
Yi-Chin Lee / MPR News

Anyone who has seen Kevin Washington play the drums knows that he is among the most versatile of jazz musicians - as adept at playing straight-ahead tunes as he is incorporating Afro-Latin rhythms or hip-hop into his sets.

"One minute I'll be playing funk and you'll think that's all I do. And right around in like the next minute -- just like that -- I can play a bebop song so authentic, you'll think that's two different drummers," Washington said. "People ask me that all the time, 'how do you do that?' I just do it. You've got to do your homework though."

Washington has been dedicated to his art for much of his 39 years. The son of musical scholars, he went to the New School in New York, studied under drummer Max Roach and has played with stellar performers like saxophonists Antonio Hart and James Carter. He's also played with elite musicians in the Twin Cities, where increasingly he's focused on new grooves.

The drummer's latest project, inspired by African rhythms, will be on display tonight at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis, where Washington plays with his quintet.

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Kevin Washington plays the drums.
Jazz musician Kevin Washington plays the drums during an rehearsal with his band, Kevin Washington Quartet +1, before the recording at MPR's Studio M on Monday, Oct. 20, 2014 in St. Paul, Minn.
Yi-Chin Lee / MPR News

One of the first thing the audience will notice is that Washington never stops moving. Whether he's on the drums, playing the guitar or singing, the bandleader is a fountain of energy, delivering rhythm -- and melody -- in ways that show a deep connection to the music.

His improvisations flow from what pianist Craig Taborn has called a living culture. For Washington at its heart, music is about emotion.

"I'd rather hear the person with no technique, with heart, than the person with technique," he said. "The person with technique and not living, they're not saying anything to me.

"You have to live it. You have to be it. And my music incorporates everything I've listened to on my journey. Everything. From metal to bebop."

Washington came to Minnesota from Detroit in his teens. But he still carries his "Detroitness" - and strong lessons from his parents. Saxophonist Donald Washington and singer Faye Washington made sure their son was immersed in music and surrounded by jazz greats.

"When you're born with a vocalist in the house, and a saxophone player and then you listen to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, whoever, the whole nine, those lines get beat into your head," he said. "Not only listening to that, people coming to your house. You've got to understand, I grew up around [saxophonists] James Carter, Cassius Richmond -- you know, great musicians."

Washington lives the music because he carries with him a rich cultural tradition and has opened his mind to so much more, including Afro-Latin vibes and African music.

The dummer's new quintet includes Ivory Coast native Serge Akou on bass; New Yorker Brian Ziemniak on piano, Walter Hampton of Chicago on sax and Ernest Lawrence, a young Nigerian, on violin.

When looking for players, Washington has one thing in mind: "Who got the vibe? Who has that spirituality that I'm looking for?"

But when playing the drums, Washington doesn't concentrate on laying a foundation for his band. Focused on melodies, he accompanies them on the tunes, often playing off their lines.

In recent years, Washington, who also plays piano, has been drawn to African music. In large part that owes to his frequent collaborations with Akou, and another bassist, Yohannes Tona, who's from Ethiopia.

As an American, the drummer said, he has work to capture the African spirit. Noting the similarities between African-American funk and Afro Beat, he said the mother continent's music is in his essence.

"It's in all of us," he said. "You've just got to go down in the pit of your soul and go get it."

Washington has worked with Peruvian guitarist Andres Prado, who specializes in Afro-Peruvian rhythms.

"I get all this stuff in my ear and my soul and then I just get on the guitar and that happens," he said.

For Washington, the magic is in new musical creations that don't imitate what has come before - even though that's what some audiences want. Max Roach, he said, once told him, "You can't do this. We already did it."

As much as he loves playing traditional jazz compositions, he doesn't want to dwell on them. Instead, he aims to take the music to new, modern, heights while retaining the improvisation inherent in jazz philosophy.

"If you listen to the 1900s to the 1920s to the 30s, the 40s notice how rhythms of whatever instrument they were playing changed," Washington said. "Listen to what happened from the 40s to the 60s. It completely changed. Rhythms changed again. The way they swung changed.

"And in the 70s it changed [and] the 80s. It's the same way in hip-hop. Listen to the late 70s, early 80s beats, the way they was rhyming and listen to it now. It changes. You have to change the music."