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Salim Washington: To Be Moved to Speak

Seton Hawkins By

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I’m privileged to be a part of this. The world of ideas, the world of politics, the world of music, the world of culture, all of these things are inextricably tied together. —Salim Washington
To audiences in Boston or New York, Salim Washington is not just a great musician, he is a community builder. Having first established the Roxbury Blues Aesthetic, then the Harlem Arts Ensemble, Washington has throughout his career carefully nurtured collectives of musicians who in turn generated irreplaceable music scenes at venues like Connolly's in Boston and St. Nick's Pub in New York. In tandem with his collaborators, Washington also honed his chops as a composer, tackling ambitious, genre-defying works that recall diverse figures like Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Julius Hemphill, or Fred Ho.

Consequently, when Washington relocated to South Africa to teach at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the loss to New York's scene was painfully felt. However, the city's loss proved South Africa's gain, as Washington has turned into a central figure of Durban's Jazz scene as a teacher, mentor, and performing artist. With the 2017 release of Sankofa, an ambitious Pan-African project that finds Washington performing in the company of top-tier South African talent like Nduduzo Makhathini, Tumi Mogorosi , and Ayanda Sikade, listeners were treated to a remarkable new musical chapter in the life of an ever-evolving and ever-surprising artist.

All About Jazz: Going through your discography, a recurring theme seems to lie in your compositions' construction. They're ambitious, they have thick and rich orchestrations, and they employ a lot of atypical instruments for Jazz ensemble. Can you talk about your compositional style?

Salim Washington: The primary thing is that I was a composer from the beginning. Even before I had matured as a player, I had begun to mature as a composer. This is something that's very important to me, to have multiple voices.

AAJ: You also do an incredible amount of doubling on your recordings, across a surprising range of instruments.

SW: I'm from the same neighborhood, though a different generation, as Yusef Lateef, who also plays tenor sax, flute, oboe, and other instruments. I was also influenced by Rahsaan Roland Kirk as a player. As I got older, I realized that he also influenced me as a composer and arranger, too.

The other thing for me is that I have also spent my career as a bandleader like Horace Tapscott did, in the sense that community is important to me. When my peers were out trying to prove themselves as the best in the world at their instruments, I never really had that type of ambition. I was much more involved with having collaborators, people who were generous enough to learn my music and stick with me. That's been part of how I developed.

Charles Mingus really turned my head around when I was introduced to his music. People like him are total musicians, who have a vision for how they play, for how their music is presented, and what its purpose is. Because of all those things, I've gravitated towards mid-to-large-sized ensembles.

In fact, my dream is to perform with my Jazz ensemble paired with a philharmonic orchestra, a South African choir, a Pan-African percussion ensemble, and poets. I've been writing this music, and I know it's very impractical and expensive! But I feel like if I write this music, the musicians will come, and we'll get it documented somehow.

AAJ: What you're describing are threads that one hears across your various albums. Those arrangements and textures, the mixing of music and poetry, are all present in your albums to date. It makes sense they could congeal into something bigger.

SW: Yes, and I can't get the sound out of my head. It's something I'm supposed to do, so I am writing a suite of five compositions dealing with different aspects of love. Five is the special number for Oshun, the Orisha of Love. I've been trying for this for so long, that sometimes I can get discouraged, but now I'm going to solider on and continue to write this music.

AAJ: One album that stands out as a contrast would be Dogon Revisited, where you pare down to a much smaller ensemble. But even there you are taking unusual steps, using a viola instead of, say, a piano. Can you talk about that album?

SW: Dogon Revisited is unique in my discography. It was recorded as I was about to immigrate to South Africa, and I wanted a piece that encapsulated what I had learned during my years in New York, Boston, and so forth, before I left the country. So that album tries to distill my music and playing to some type of essence. That was the idea, and so it's a lot of my compositions on the album. But with playing "Dogon, AD" on the album, I am also paying tribute to [its composer] Julius Hemphill, who was for me one of the greatest writers of his generation. He's a composer in a very special kind of way in how he studiously avoids clichés—even his own—and I aspire to that level. I really wanted to play it, and often do you get to play a masterpiece in 11/8? What also helped was having Tyshawn Sorey on the album, who can not only play such compound meters fluently, he can make it groove. It was a great opportunity, I thought.

I'm attracted to the trio idea, but I had never really explored it that much. But I enjoyed it, and I'd like to employ it more. Billy Bang used to tell me I should play trio more, because people wanted to hear me more. I don't know, but I'm still thinking about what he said.

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