Kassa Overall uses language like he uses music. Everything is a metaphor, a colorful snapshot of a larger picture. When he speaks, the next idea could be from poetry or chemistry, economics or philosophy, film or fashion. In Overall’s words, African-American music has frozen assets in the form of meaning and interpretation; these musical flowers will bloom for larger audiences when people begin listening to new music like they read unfamiliar poetry. Everything is a remix. This type of genre-clashing in the world of music, according to Overall, is a way to “reconnect the dots, intuitively and systematically, of the past present and future.”
Raised in Seattle and trained at Oberlin, Overall has performed around the world over the last decade with Geri Allen, Vijay Iyer, Das Racist, Mayer Hawthorne, Wallace Roney, Ravi Coltrane, Gary Bartz, The Late Show band, and many more. His identity as a jazz drummer blends seamlessly with his production and rapping skills, which can be seen on his recent Drake It Till You Make It EP, where he covers Drake, Snoop Dogg, and Kanye West–the new standards, says Overall–alongside Theo Croker, Julius Rodriguez, Dominic Missana, and Aaron Parks.
TIME CAPSULE is the name of Overall’s new project, a Jazz Gallery residency and commission that will unfold over the next seven months. Overall’s idea is to “expand the limits of time and genre in music,” and to generate fresh, remix-able material with pianists including Jason Moran, Aaron Parks, Sullivan Fortner, Kris Davis and Craig Taborn. The first date will feature Jon Batiste, widely known from his gig as the bandleader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. In our recent phone interview, Overall spared no words, laying out his plans for the next six months in enthusiastic, technicolor detail.
The Jazz Gallery: Kassa, it’s my pleasure to interview you about the very first show in your TIME CAPSULE residency at The Jazz Gallery. What’s been keeping you busy?
Kassa Overall: Right now, I’m finishing up a new body of recorded work. I tend to make songs in a kind of backwards way. For example, I had this song with drums, keys, organ, all this different stuff. After it was finished, I wrote a little melody, and had a pianist record and sing it to me. I added it to the track, and I’m trying to figure out if it fits.
TJG: So it’s kind of a three-step process, where you put in everything except the melody, you add the melody, and you rebuild the song around it?
KO: That’s how it went this time. With every song, I never really know when it’s finished, until I’m at the deadline, and I say “Word, it’s finished I guess” [laughs]. This thing started as more of an interlude or intro, so it didn’t really need a melody, and the drums were introduced throughout the song as a speaking part. The melody is minimal, just one or two notes, but it almost re-contextualizes the whole piece. Do I want to do that or not? Do I want to keep the drums out front, or should I give the people the melody? A lot of it is decision-making, more so than composing. It’s like, “Do I wear the red shoes, or do I wear the black ones and let the colorful shirt be the main focus?” The answer is different for every song.
TJG: Got it. So, let’s jump to the Jazz Gallery show, I’ve got some questions about the upcoming residency. I’ll start art with a quote from Jonathan Zwickel, who interviewed you for City Arts Magazine in Seattle.
KO: Oh yeah, I loved that interview.
TJG: Me too. Jonathan wrote, “Kassa is one of those people who’s not only good at everything he does but is often the only one doing the thing he’s doing.” How would you describe what you’re doing, and do you think you’re the only one doing it?
KO: Because I do a lot of different things, the correct thing to say would be, “No, I’m not the only one doing what I’m doing.” But, at the same time, the answer is yes, because I’m the only one doing what I’m doing in the way I’m doing it. A lot of it has to do with the way I’ve divided myself and my surroundings in the past. For example: I play the drums, and many people play the drums. But I approach drumming a certain way. For me, that magic thing that speaks to me is the polyrhythmic side, or the harmonic rhythm, of drumming. Elvin Jones was one of the greatest independence guys, where the cymbal, snare, and bass drum are doing different things. A lot of cats from that era, from Art Blakey and Max Roach to Tony Williams and Kenny Clarke, were dealing with that kind of information. But even back when Elvin was the man, there were a lot of drummers who weren’t dealing with independence, and were coming from different aesthetic perspectives. So in that sense, considering the harmonics of drumming, there are only a certain number of cats who see that evolution as an important aspect of drumming today. I’d consider myself one of those drummers.
Then you have different producers who are dealing with jazz aesthetic, chopping up live music, and so on. A lot of musicians and producers are doing that, but there aren’t that many jazz musicians that are also doing that. That puts me in a smaller group of people. You have the lineage of J Dilla, Madlib, Flying Lotus… For example, I was just in Chicago, hanging out with Makaya McCraven. He showed me his own approach, coming from that same hip hop/jazz/live beats lineage. There’s not too many people doing that. And then, I also write lyrics and rap. So when you take all of these different elements and compound them, there’s probably nobody doing exactly what I’m doing. If you take any specific element of what I do, there are people I look up to in every direction. I’m the only one with my perspective, but we all have our own perspective, and it takes a long time to find out what that is. It’s an infinite journey.
TJG: So with this new project, TIME CAPSULE, you talk about wanting to “expand the limits of time and genre in music.” How would you describe those limits, the personal limits and the limits of the tradition?
KO: I would describe the limits as imaginary. I don’t think there are any real limits, only imposed limits. As soon as somebody breaks a “limit,” everybody else can do it the next year. For example, Stephen Curry made the new three-point line like ten feet back. He was constantly shooting threes and jumpers from further away. Now, you see kids at the community center hitting those same kinds of shots, because Curry showed us, “Yo, as a human, you can do this.” Now it’s not a limit anymore. A lot of the time, limits are just beliefs. We thought the earth was flat, and then it wasn’t [laughs]. You know? Once we realize something’s not a limit, everybody moves on from that assumption together.
Getting back to the music, let’s deal with time first. I look at time in two ways: Linearly and cyclically. If you look at the score of a European classical piece, you think linearly. It starts here and it ends there. There may be cycles within the piece, but the general approach is that “It’s this many pages, this many measures.” By contrast, the cyclical approach comes more from the African way of dealing with time. If you deal with additive rhythm, you get things like bell patterns and claves, which are basically accents within a rhythmic circle, like numbers on a clock. So if you at a rhythm or song cyclically, you won’t think about the beginning or end, just the big circle, and the farther you zoom in, the more complex it gets. You look at something as simple as a circle, and as you look with more detail, you begin to see the story, the innovation.
With TIME CAPSULE, I’m trying to create macrocosmic version of the additive, cyclical rhythmic perspective. The first performance is on December 18th, and we’ve prepared beforehand. But we create something new in the moment, and what we’ll create in the future based on that. So we’re not over-rehearsing, because we know there’s more creation to be done in the future. It’s a past, present, and future approach to preparing, creating, and post-producing.
TJG: After you received the Jazz Gallery commission, how did this idea for this monthly residency project come together?
KO: When the Gallery first approached me to do the project, they said, “We know you can throw a show, but we want you to push yourself, to do something more than you would normally do.” I started to wonder, How can I showcase what I’m special at? At times, I’ve been frustrated while marketing myself or explaining who I am and what I do. I’ll say I’m a “drummer/rapper,” or “laptop artist.” I’ve taken this approach to creating music for a while, but I haven’t had the medium or the means to express exactly what I’m doing. I like to create little ideas, have musicians perform those ideas, take those ideas and chop them up, have musicians play them again, you know? You make some juice, run the pulp back through the juicer again, run the pulp back through the juicer again, and then take the pulp and turn that into bread [laughs]. That’s what I do, that’s what I’m special at. If I didn’t have a way to explain that clearly, people would still be like “Okay, yeah, he’s a good drummer.” This residency is me saying, “I can do this other stuff, if you give me a chance.”
TJG: Speaking of giving you a chance, you’ve talked before about the first time you moved to New York, struggling to get the gig with Wallace Roney, ending up playing djembe in nursing homes. Then, when you first spoke with this blog a few years ago, you were described as a rising young star on the jazz scene. Now, your first show of this Jazz Gallery residency is already sold out. What’s your perspective on your place in New York today? How have you seen your identity change as you’ve tried things out in New York?
KO: You know when you’re watching a movie with great cinematography? It’s a slow scene that starts out kind of blurry, and as time goes on, things get clearer? That’s what it feels like for me. I didn’t realize it then, but I’ve been doing the same stuff I’ve been doing since I was a toddler: Messing around on drums, recording stuff, making lyrics. When I moved to New York, I was doing that too, but it was different. I had rap songs out, and I even had The FADER and Noisey covering it. But those people didn’t know I was also a real musician, a jazz musician. At the same time, I’d be touring with Geri Allen, playing with some of the innovators of the music, and they knew I rapped and produced, but they didn’t really know what to do with that. As my vision crystalized, I realized that I you can’t divide yourself. You need to be an integrated human being, an integrated artist. As I began to realize that, the music scene also noticed. I started to think, “I’m just going to make music, it’s all one thing, and whoever wants to embrace it can embrace it.” As soon as I started thinking like that, it was a lot easier for everybody else to process me.
TJG: So you’ve been treating music with an open, playful heart ever since you were a kid. Would you ever get frustrated with people if they treated the art form as too sacred, or if they were afraid to take creative risks with you?
KO: Hm, no, I don’t think so. Elvin Jones said in an interview–and I hear this in his playing–that “Every time you play, you need to treat it with the utmost sincerity.” Whether you’re in a concert hall or a small club with three people, on an energy level, it always needs to be your Magnum Opus. You could think, “This might be my last one: Let me give it my all.” You always want to take it seriously. Even if it’s a Depends commercial, you know? [laughs]. If we’re swinging, let’s swing.
If I’ve felt frustration in terms of taking risks, it’s been when I’m working on other people’s projects. It’s hard to realize that on someone else’s project, you can’t make them become the innovator that you’re trying to become. Because I didn’t have the medium to push my own vision, that I would try to make other people’s project into my own thing. That doesn’t work, because people have their own visions. Once I put a little more time and energy into my own projects, I was able to settle into other people’s projects more easily. Like, “I’m gonna play a one drop,” or, “It’s a ballad, I’m just gonna use brushes.” I didn’t have to put some Kassa stuff on everything.
TJG: Speaking of people having their own visions, TIME CAPSULE will feature six pianists over the next half year. Let’s talk about the piano/drums relationship.
KO: I make a lot of intuitive decisions. You know, you look in the fridge and see what’s there. In terms of piano, it could have been a different instrument, to be honest. But at the same time, there are some reasons. Over the past two years, after Geri Allen passed, we had a few memorial concerts for her. That means I’ve crossed paths with quite a few different pianists. Just thinking about it now, I’m tight with a lot of piano players. I’ve had good conversations with a lot of piano players. One of my big influences, my biggest mentors, has been Vijay Iyer. These pianists are around, they’re supportive, and it made sense for this project. I have a limitless approach to music, I’ll try to put everything but the kitchen sink in there, so choosing the piano made sense.
When I really think back to my earliest musical journeys, I’d come home from school, and my dad and I would play duo all the time. He played sax, mostly, but he was an avant-garde piano hobbyist. Growing up, piano and drums was always there, always a sound in my head. The past year and a half, piano has been the centerpiece of all of my recording approaches. It’s usually drums, live piano, and who knows what else. It’s what I’m hearing now.
TJG: And Jon Batiste?
KO: Jon Batiste. I wanted him to be the first one, because we’ve worked together this past year when I was playing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. I don’t think people understand that Jon has this broader musical aesthetic. He can really go outside, but on the show, he doesn’t get to stretch as much as he could. So behind the scenes, whether in jam sessions or rehearsing new ideas, we’ve built some ideas together. When I asked him to do the first Gallery show, he got excited, like, “Oh man, yeah, I need to do this for the scene.” He’s big, he’s got prestige, he’s famous, and people are gonna come because they know him from TV, but he wants to have a voice in this other musical conversation too. He wants to get the outside, avant-garde thing going for himself. Having him first in the residency is like “Oh shit, Jon Batiste is coming to the Gallery,” but we’re gonna bring something different, and people won’t know what to expect, which will set the tone for the future shows.
TJG: This is going to be cool.
KO: Yeah. We’ve had a few rehearsals, and we’re excited [laughs]. He’s already excited all the time, so when he gets excited, it’s like, man. I’m so stoked. I’m excited for him, too. I’m excited for him to be able to play outside of what people expect of him, you know what I mean.
TJG: To wrap things up for now, I want to ask about the “generational divide” that you’ve noticed and talked about in African-American music and art. What does that divide look like to you, and what do we risk losing?
KO: Okay. First off, there are consistent aspects and techniques that are part of African and African-American music. Let’s go from Africa to the US, The black experience: There are things that are so blatantly consistent that it’s like, “This is the same music.” Rakim will tell you about taking John Coltrane’s phrasing. Donald Harrison talks about how Biggie Smalls would come to his house, who in turn got a lot of his phrasing from Max Roach. Prodigy from Mobb Deep will talk about listening to jazz. The thing that makes the music actually what it is has been consistent the whole time If you get caught up in the specifics of the moment, you risk not seeing these consistencies. The music may not sound or look like what came one or two generations before it, but when you strip off the layers of the moment, the core is the same.
We stand to gain more stability, more foundation: There are frozen assets that are going to get melted, and people are going to take advantage of them. I notice it happening naturally. I see new jazz audiences. Your average listener will hear something that used to sound weird and will vibe to it like it’s normal. As the listeners’ ears opens up, and they hear different harmonies and rhythms, it doesn’t seem strange. Music from the past that was like “I don’t know, I can’t get with this,” is going to expose itself, and will finally bloom for the general public.
With certain things, only people that knew would know. For example, my dad was hip to Yusef Lateef, Eric Dolphy, Thelonious Monk, I was listening to it growing up. But if you weren’t into it, it just sounded bad to you. You know what I mean? The first time I heard Sun Ra, it was like, “Man, that’s out. Those notes are wrong.” As people start to wake up and say, “Oh, those notes are right,” once you understand that, you can get to the story within those notes. It’s the same with metaphor, poetry, philosophy. You can’t expect to pick up a philosophy book and understand it right off the gate. But you’re not gonna open the book and say “I don’t understand it, so it’s bullshit,” you know? [laughs]. You’ll say “Man, I wish I knew enough, was smart enough, to understand this.” Within the generational divide in African-American music, there’s hidden information. There’s meanings below meanings, meanings above meanings on meanings. The more we can see the connection, the more we can find out that “Man, there’s a lot of stuff in here.”
Kassa Overall presents TIME CAPSULE at The Jazz Gallery on Tuesday, December 18, 2018. Mr. Overall, on drums, will be joined by Jon Batiste on piano and Ameen Saleem on bass. Sets are at 8:00 and 10:00 P.M. Tickets are sold out.