It’s not exactly a new dynamic. There’s been a decades-long tug of war in the jazz community between tradition and forging new paths, from ’70s fusionists to the neoclassical Young Lions of the ’80s, who saw themselves as custodians of a great American art form.
But since Kamasi Washington became one of jazz’s latest crossover stars, there’s been a fresh wave of progressive young players and composers finding audiences in and beyond traditional jazz circles; artists equally likely to play a rock club or hip indie fest as they are a Jazz Alley. Count Seattle-raised drummer, producer and rapper Kassa Overall among them.
Last year the former Garfield High School student stepped out with his impressive debut album, the superbly titled “Go Get Ice Cream and Listen to Jazz,” showing his love of hip-hop and electronic production as much as jazz. Like many of his new wave peers, the Oberlin Conservatory-trained percussionist knows and loves the jazz tradition, but refuses to exist solely within its confines.
“For me, the whole idea for creative music is to push the boundaries and to find something that hasn’t been found already,” says Overall, who’s been based in New York since 2006. “To do that in one way and then in another way to be totally conservative, it doesn’t work. If I’m gonna break these harmonic rules or rhythmic rules, then I kinda have to be OK with breaking all the rules.”
Shortly before our call, Overall jumped on social media to respond (cordially, sort of) to a YouTube commenter irked by his use of Auto-Tune on “Got Me a Plan.” The synth-laced track is a smooth-sailing standout from Overall’s genre-blurring new album “I Think I’m Good,” which he’s back home celebrating with performances at the Triple Door (March 1) and Easy Street Records (March 2).
It’s partially this everything-and-nothing-is-sacred approach that makes the variegated album a liberating and hypnotic listen, accessible even for those who don’t think they like jazz. “I love the tradition. I love being conservative and playing by the rules, and learning how to play within those confines,” Overall says. “But then at a certain point, it feels natural to say ‘I get that, now let’s see where else I can go.’”
While it’s been years since the now-Brooklynite has lived in Seattle, a gray-sky ambience drifts through some of the album’s highlights, including a Vijay Iyer-assisted tribute to late great Geri Allen. Much of “I Think I’m Good” touches on Overall’s relationship with mental illness, going back to two manic episodes he experienced in college that landed him in the hospital. “I stopped sleeping. It was almost like a mushroom trip or something,” Overall says. “Things started to get otherworldly and you start computing reality differently.”
Largely recorded using Overall’s mobile studio setup — a backpack with his laptop, a microphone and other gear — the on-the-go beatsmith recorded parts from the album’s various collaborators, which include Seattle-reared pianist Aaron Parks, with whom Overall plays in Grammy Award-winning Terri Lyne Carrington’s Social Science band. Overall’s “backpack jazz producer” setup was a move of convenience as much as it was a cost and quality control play. After recording the individual tracks, Overall spends hours tinkering and editing to his heart’s content.
“Really, that’s what I’ve found is the biggest benefit,” he says. “I can go to a cabin somewhere for a week and just zone out. I have all this material and I can put my final imprint on it, so it all still sounds like me.”
Of all the record’s cameos, perhaps the most eye-catching is Angela Davis. Overall and the renowned activist and author struck up a friendship after Carrington invited him to DJ a surprise party for Davis’ birthday. “I think she just was saying DJ like classic DJ, play some songs and stuff,” says Overall, who does live electronics and vocals in Carrington’s band. “But I brought my whole setup. I’m like ‘This is Angela Davis, right?!’”
Instead of simply spinning dance-floor cuts, Overall joined an all-star band that featured Carrington, Esperanza Spalding and Chucho Valdes, lacing the heavyweight ensemble’s music with chopped up snippets of Davis’ voice lifted from various interviews over the years. “She’s looking at me like ‘What is this?!’” Overall recalls. “I think that’s when she was like ‘All right, I’m down with this.’”
Davis is heard at the end of “Show Me a Prison” — a brooding, electro-warped track addressing mass incarceration — leaving a fictitious voicemail of support to a hypothetically imprisoned Overall. The track is a re-imagining of “There But for Fortune,” the ’60s protest song popularized by Joan Baez, with Davis’ voice giving the already somber tune even more weight.
While Overall’s career as a bandleader is starting to take off in New York, he’s seemed to increase his Seattle ties of late, returning to play Capitol Hill Block Party and Earshot Jazz Festival last year and soliciting contributions from his saxophonist brother Carlos Overall and ubiquitous keyboardist/producer Tim Kennedy on “I Think I’m Good.” At the end of 2018, a collaborative holiday-season show with Seattle hip-hop vet Stas Thee Boss drew a crowd of local luminaries from both hip-hop and jazz circles.
“I always thought I was just visiting New York, to be honest,” Overall says, laughing. “I still got my Seattle number and my Seattle ID. It feels too fast to actually commit to living there, even though it’s been what, like 15 years?”
He’s welcome back anytime.