The drummer Kassa Overall is rising fast on the jazz scene. Growing up in Seattle, he learned the language of rhythm under the mentorship of giants like Elvin Jones, Billy Higgins and Albert “Tootie” Heath; later, he continued his studies with Billy Hart at the Oberlin Conservatory. You may have witnessed Kassa’s contributions to groups led by Geri Allen (he’s a long-standing member of her “Timeline” band), Vijay Iyer, Steve Coleman, and numerous others; a resume that is strong at any age.
But drumming with jazz pioneers is only one of Kassa’s current areas of focus. To get a better view of the bigger picture, we begin with a description of the four-song EP that the young artist is currently working on:
The EP is interesting, because it’s kind of a lot of different facets of what I’m doing that focus on my vocal artistry: rapping, singing, producing, and some drumming. Drumming isn’t the focus on it. Basically, it’s gonna be four songs, plus an intro and outro. The intro and outro blend samples from two different songs of [John Coltrane‘s] A Love Supreme – the drum solo on “Pursuance,” and the end of “Psalm” with the timpani and everything. I made a beat of out that, a post-Dilla type of thing.
I just felt like that was a good way to bookend the EP, to tell the story of where I’m at. You know: jazz drummer, jazz enthusiast, producer, and then it cuts into a chant-rap type song, which Robert Lux produced. I spit on that one – some real bass-chakra type energy, real earthy, simple raps – but the production is very complicated. And then there’s a song produced by Francis and the Lights, featuring Francis and the Lights. He’s singing on it, I’m rapping. It’s a relationship type of song. And then I have another joint that I produced and Alex Kestner co-produced – he’s the bass player and producer for Boy Crisis – and that song I’m just singing something like a crooner song, really R&B, like a rip-your-shirt-off-in-the-interlude-type joint!
Naturally, I had to ask Kassa whether or not we can expect to see him bring that idea to life in a music video. “I’m not sure yet,” he responded with a laugh. “Whatever I do, I just want everybody to understand that, though I take the music very seriously, and though I’m very particular about how it sounds and what’s being said, there’s a comedy aspect to it. Everything I do, I’m serious, but I’m also just having fun and making fun of that concept. It’s not seriously like that, you know what I mean? I don’t have a six pack to be ripping my undershirt off.” Without flinching, he adds, “But I might if I had a six pack…you dig?!”
The EP closes with a song called “Gin Rummy,” which is about “money, and a lot of other stuff.” It will be called The Appetizer, and Kassa would like you to know that it is coming soon. In the meantime, however, the young artist is juggling more than his fair share of collaborations:
I was just in D.C. with Vijay Iyer, Mike Ladd, Guillermo Brown, Okkyung Lee, Liberty Ellman, Latasha Diggs, Maurice Decaul, Lynne Hill [for Holding It Down: The Veteran’s Dream Project]. So I did that for about a week. That was really dope because we would rehearse all day, and the shows were really good, and it also feels good for my chops to be super up, like Vijay up, you know what I mean? I’ve been doing a lot of different random drum gigs. I just played at the Empire State Building with Neek DeLeon, who’s a Brownsville rapper, and Eric Sosa, who’s from the Bronx I think, and that was rap rap…a DJ, a drummer, and rappers. I was playing really hard. I broke two 2B sticks playing!
[The vocalist-producer-songwriter] TECLA is dropping an album in a couple of weeks, and I co-produced about half of that. I play in her band. Me and Kool A.D. [rapper formerly of Das Racist] have a tape that’s been done for a while. We’re just waiting for the right time to put that out, but it’ll probably come out about a month after my EP comes out. I’m playing at the Apollo with Geri [Allen] in May, and going on tour with Peter Evans in a week. That’s with Peter Evans and John Hébert; we did a record a year ago at Zebulon, so we’re going to Europe to play some gigs.
Kassa is compelled by a desire to energize and uplift audiences. “My approach to no matter what I play, is to hopefully convey that it’s something I’m interested in playing,” he says. “I try to show the strength of my spirit; show that, whatever it is, I’m up here and I’m gonna go hard. So I’m starting to learn that, no matter what you do, you have to do that.” Achieving that level of investment in the music requires preparation: “I think a lot of things I do [offstage] are geared to build up my personal energy so that, when I get up there, I feel good. I exercise and meditate and things like that, and all that stuff to me is [done] in order to have a good show.”
We are excited to present Kassa’s own music this Thursday night. He’ll be performing solo for most of his sets, though a few as-of-yet unannounced special guests will rise to make contributions over the course of the evening. Kassa speaks:
This is a newer project of mine that’s based around soundscapes that I built on my laptop in Ableton Live. The drums are out front, like the lead vocalist, or the rapper, if you will. I’m playing rhythmic equations [on the drums] over these soundscapes, and the role of the drummer isn’t to keep time for the soloist, but to be the soloist. I’m going to bring up a number of special guests to do duos throughout the night.
Whatever you do, don’t take any of this too seriously; Kassa has stressed that he might completely abandon these ideas between now and the day of the show. “It’s a very stretchy concept – it has the room to change, and I don’t know what I might do,” he says. “I might grab the microphone and do something with that. But that’s the basic structure, that’s the equation.”
At least as of now, the plan is for the arrangements to take form to some extent on stage. When asked about the computer’s role in the improvisations, Kassa replied, “It’s more like a choose-your-own-adventure book. I’m manipulating the arrangement when I drop certain things in and out, but it’s kind of hard to really create new things on the laptop and create a new piece on the drums that has the quality that I like. So I start with the [pre-composed] soundscape and I decide when to drop things in, but most of the improvisation is on the drums, as of now.” Regardless, Kassa intends to bring all aspects of his experience and interests to bear:
The other day, I tweeted something to the effect of this: “every song I put out will have some sort of improvisation in it.” With every beat I make, every rap I write, and, obviously, every jazz song I’m a part of, there’s some form of split-second creativity, and that’s the way that I infuse my jazz concept into other styles. If somebody plays me a beat I like, I know I like it because I just start coming up with ideas right there on the spot. I’ll come up with a concept, or a couple of lines…just boom, freestyle. Or, [consider] the way I make beats: something will be looping and I’ll just zone out [and create]… Even if it’s just [exhibited in delivering] the ad-libs to a rap, there’s a certain kind of energy that comes when you can tell a person was thinking something and said it right then and there. Even with this interview, the answers that are the coolest are the first things I think of when you ask me something. Everybody can relate to that as a human; it’s not a musical thing, it’s a human thing. And I think that that’s important…I think that’s jazz, in a sense.