For a lot of people jazz is something of a dirty word. It's music often derided as too challenging, too abstract, too much like the sound of four people playing entirely different things all at the same time.

This perhaps explains why Kamasi Washington's brand of jazz has proven such a revelatory experience.

"I've always looked at it as more of an unveiling," he says from his home in Los Angeles, when asked about why he thinks his music crossed over into mainstream.

"Jazz is not as separated from music as people talk about it being," he explains. "If you listen to hip-hop, you inherently listen to jazz, because a lot of the samples and things like that are jazz. And if you listen to funk, a lot of those musicians are jazz musicians. Their sensibilities really, is jazz. It was just a different title put on to that style of music. So people are much more connected to the music already than they realise."


Washington says its those familiar musical touch points that is resonating with people.

"I've played a lot of different styles of music so when I play jazz it's really based off this idea, this concept, of it being music that's self expression and created in the moment, more so than any aesthetic or that we play songs that go bing-a-ding-ding or bass lines that go dooo-doo-do-doo-doo," he says, humming a couple of cliched jazz licks down the line.

"It's not those things. It's the spirit of the music. People hear these similar and familiar attributes then they feel something new, that they haven't really heard. That's intriguing. We're also reaching out and trying to connect with them and as we all connect the style of music doesn't matter because we're going on our journey. And that's more energetic than it is aesthetic."

What's remarkable about Washington's success is that he and his crack band haven't dumbed their music down, simplified it or made any real concessions to trends. In fact, he's kind of gone the other way.

His breakthrough album was a three-disc, three-hour monster, appropriately titled The Epic. He followed that up with Harmony of Difference, a six-song suite that was as much an exercise in musical knowledge and composition as it was comment on the current cultural climate.

Washington can get away with these purist pursuits because he says he prizes one thing above all else, audience connection.

"That's what we're searching for," he says. "When we step on stage and connect with the audience, that guides the direction of the journey we're gonna go on. That really affects the music and it's different every night."

The first thing Washington does when he checks in at a hotel in a new city is get out. He says he likes to look around, go explore and meet the locals. While checking the place out he'll pick up the vibe and this will then directly influence how he and his band play.

"Each city has its own vibe. I don't lock the music into any particular form, groove, tempo or even key. So we just vibe out each song," he says. "By the time we get to the actual show we've gotten to a flow or an energy that the city and the people in it bring us too. It's the only way to keep the music honest."

This will be his second visit to New Zealand. He played the first Auckland City Limits in 2016. So what does he remember about Auckland's vibe?

"The festival was outdoors and was really cool. There was lots of music happening. It was one of our first shows overseas actually, before we'd even been to Europe," he enthuses. "I remember it being kind of exploratory. It felt like we were playing to an audience who didn't know what to expect from us. I remember feeling like it was the beginning of something, for us and for the audience, so I remember the energy being exciting."

When it comes to harnessing that energy Washington has a metaphysical approach.

"The music comes to me and through me, not necessarily from me. These songs have their own life and when you go to a place they augment that.

"So I let the music go. It's really free when we play live. I don't even know how we're going to play the songs until we start playing. We just really try to tap into that energy and let it guide us and when we are able to do that that's when the shows feel magical."

Also sounds a little risky, I joke.

"Oh yeah, absolutely," he laughs. "We've dodged many a bullet."

Who: Kamasi Washington
When: The Powerstation next Friday, then WOMAD Festival next Saturday.