The West Coast Get Down is a collective of young musicians who are largely being credited with reviving jazz fusion, making L.A. the focal point for what many consider to be a renaissance for the genre’s mass appeal. Collectively, they are some of the most sought-after musicians working today, playing with artists such as Kendrick Lamar (on his landmark album To Pimp A Butterfly), Snoop Dogg, Lauryn Hill, Chaka Khan, Rihanna and Korn, which is only just scratching the surface of their reach. They’ve been called the Wu-Tang Clan of jazz, a fitting comparison, considering the West Coast Get Down's prolific creative output and influence.
“I think we share a lot of similarities with Wu-Tang from a creative standpoint and from a brotherhood standpoint,” says founding member and upright bass player Miles Mosley, who released his solo debut, Uprising, earlier this year.
Ahead of his Toronto show with the Get Down on May 22, we asked the 36-year-old musician to break down what makes the jazz collective so unique.
1. The players
The West Coast Get Down is comprised primarily of seven musicians who grew up playing together in school. A majority of them have already released albums, largely taken from one 30-day session (see No. 6, below). Stephen Bruner, a.k.a. Thundercat, is also associated with the group, although more as an outlier, as are other musicians. The late saxophonist Zane Musa, who passed away in 2015, also played on Mosley’s album. The bandmembers are:
Miles Mosley (upright bass)
Kamasi Washington (saxophone)
Album: The Epic
Ronald Bruner Jr. (drums)
Cameron Graves (piano)
Album: Planetary Prince
Ryan Porter (trombone)
Brandon Coleman (keys)
Tony Austin (drums)
2. L.A.’s public school system
“I was 14 when I met Tony, Kamasi, Cameron, Ronald and Stephen, we all grew up together,” says Mosley. “Kamasi and Cameron and I went to the same high school [Hamilton High in Beverlywood, Los Angeles]. We were really lucky to grow up in the ‘90s with Clinton as president and a lot of government funding going into music education programs,” he says. “We were part of a culture shift, a societal observation in L.A. that invested into a decade of kids and now our generation is the fruit of that labour.”
Outside of school, the group of friends formed bands together — Mosley with Austin and the late saxophonist Zane Musa, while the rest of the group made up what was called the Young Jazz Giants. Mosley, however, was signed to RCA when he was 18 in the band the Calling, leading his path briefly away from the rest of the crew under the leadership of veteran A&R executive Ron Fair.
“He started to weave me into the world that he was working on at that time, which was Christina Aguilera and Fergie’s first band, Wild Orchid, so I was getting this exposure to pop. Instead of going to my high school graduation, I went to a recording session for Wild Orchid. Got the call that day and it was like, well, consider this your graduation. … That's where our paths separated and then we aligned together again in college.” Some members headed to UCLA and others went to the California Institute of the Arts.
3. The Shack
The Shack was a tiny backroom off Washington’s parents’ house in Inglewood and it’s the place where, Mosley says, the band learned to feed off each other and explore music outside the realm of a strict curriculum.
“We would go back there all the time and just work on music, play fast and loud, try new tunes, new chord stuff, and it was really a breeding ground for a lot of formative playing and experimenting with what we thought was the type of expression we wanted to see,” he says. “We didn’t know what we were doing so we were just back there.”
The result is a musical connection that is both learned and natural, one that’s based in theory but also a growing desire to explore beyond what you studied in school.
“You spend 25 years making music with someone, you know what they are up to,” he says.
Which points to the importance of “shedding” for the West Coast Get Down, a term that comes up a lot in conversation with Mosley. In essence, shedding is the practice of, well, practising.
“You form this really healthy competition because you can see each person growing,” he says of their informal sessions together. “You never reach a level where it’s like, OK, I’m good here, I can stop now, because everyone around you is growing at a different pace. When someone upgrades themselves it's like, damn, I need to get back to shedding.”
For the Get Down, it opened up avenues of elasticity, with each member learning practise techniques intended for the other member’s instruments.
“It opens up a another level of dexterity because you’re not just studying ‘the Well-Tempered Clavier’ because you play piano and that's what you’re supposed to study,” he says. “Or someone is like yo, I’m really into taking these Rachmaninoff piano concertos and reading the top line and that's what I’ve been shedding, so you start developing these practise techniques that are not made for your instrument. The sharing of the ideas is something we really benefitted from and it’s a unique piece of our history that gave us an angle on music that was pretty special.”
5. The L.A. Piano Bar
The natural extension from the Shack was to take their music public, so Mosley arranged a regular gig for members at the the Piano Bar in Hollywood.
“The Piano Bar was something I started because I was on tour with Korn and Kamasi was out with Chaka Khan and Brandon was out with Babyface, Tony was out with Solomon Burke — everyone was out doing the sideman thing,” says Mosley. “Every time I’d come home I’d realize that it was crazy that there was no place to just play in L.A.”
Mosley says the venue was a place for the artists to push themselves creatively, put themselves front and centre and to not play covers. “I’d challenge the homies to write new music every single week,” he says.
But more importantly, it was the official beginning of what would actually become known as the West Coast Get Down.
“That's where we got the name because I referred to the night as, ‘welcome to the West Coast Get Down,’” he says. “It was the beginning of us saying, hey, we should really invest in ourselves. And actually, a lot of the 170 songs we recorded in 30 days came from experimenting during the Piano Bar Hollywood days.”
6. The Sessions
In 2012, Mosley and crew holed up for 30 days in a prolific jam session that, in the end, gave each member at least one full album. Washington came out of the sessions with about 45 songs, some of which became the critically acclaimed The Epic, the first to be released.
“It was 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. every single day,” says Mosley, adding that the day was broken up into three-hour blocks, with each musician being responsible for leading that block. Mosley was the manager, working out a schedule that would allow everyone to get the most out of their time, while Austin took on engineering duties. “Then Kamasi is just really good at getting us all in the room together, he has a gravitational pull on the whole thing,” he says. “Getting everybody to cancel Christmas and not play their bread-and-butter gigs took some coercion.”
It was just like the Shack, where artists were free to experiment and learn from each other, but in the end everything was professionally recorded.
“When you step back from all the records, there is a cohesiveness to it that maybe you only see when you put them back-to-back,” he says. “They are separate in their genre influences but they are tied together by this natural energy.”
And just like the Shack, it was also competitive. “Of course it was competitive,” he says. “When someone laid down a track that was fire, it was almost aggravating, like God, that's so good. Alright, I need to do better.”
7. To Pimp a Butterfly
You can’t speak about the impact of the West Coast Get Down without mentioning Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly, a universally acclaimed record that pulled heavily from jazz and funk for its production and, more importantly, featured many members of the Get Down. Mosley played on three tracks, while Thundercat and Washington were featured throughout, the latter arranging the strings.
“That record really comes from Terrace Martin and Thundercat and Kamasi working on the arrangements,” says Mosley. “I remember talking to Kamasi about that and he was saying how rare it was for a third party to utilize all the talents of the members of the Get Down in that way, to really tap into the freedom of their creativity. I think that’s why that record has such a massive impact.”
It prepared the public for Washington’s The Epic, a three-album opus released in 2015 to universal acclaim and, more importantly, a proper introduction to what the crew had been working on during that 30-day session.
“I don’t think you can separate the importance of that record and the direct connection to how big it made The Epic and gave us all an opportunity to tour for our peer group, not just the jazz bubble that was kind of suffocating at the time,” says Mosley. “If it wasn't for Kendrick Lamar and To Pimp a Butterfly, I am fairly confident we wouldn't be in the position we are in today. We owe him and that album a service of gratitude.”
Miles Mosley and the West Coast Get Down are currently on tour and play Toronto’s Adelaide Hall May 22.
Follow Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter: @JesseKG