Dinner Party has grand objectives. The collaborative effort of Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, 9th Wonder, and Terrace Martin aims to bring people of all backgrounds to the figurative table by delivering powerful jazz-rooted music that also showcases hip-hop edge, crooning from rising Chicago talent Phoelix, and soaring instrumental work from Washington, Glasper, and Martin—three of this generation’s most revered instrumentalists.
The quartet’s seven-song project hits on a wide range of emotions, from the beauty of “Sleepless Nights” to the sensual “Love You Bad,” both of which feature Phoelix. Equally potent are instrumental tracks “First Responders” and “The Mighty Tree,” two selections that contain elements of elegance and life, as well as sorrow. Then there’s “Freeze Tag,” a meditation on police brutality that was recorded last year, but arrived right on time given the international tumult surrounding the murder of George Floyd.
In our Q&A, Dinner Party explains why their brand of music works particularly well right now.
By addressing police brutality, “Freeze Tag” obviously reflects a lot of what’s going on in society now—and unfortunately what’s been going on for hundreds of years in our society. How do you feel that the “sick and tired” element of what Phoelix was singing about ties into what’s going on today?
Kamasi Washington: I think that people have been sick and tired of this for a long time, and today’s no different in that regard. I think that the newest element of what’s going on is that there’s a kind of recognition that the system itself isn’t just not functioning properly, but it’s broken and we need a new system in lots of areas of society.
In particular, policing—like, just the idea of law enforcement and what it represents, what its goals are and how it goes about serving the community. Because it’s supposed to be a service to the citizens of this country and it’s not right now. In so many ways, it’s an instrument of fear and domination, and that’s not what it’s supposed to be. And, in a lot of ways, it makes people feel unsafe. So that means that if the mantra “to protect and serve” is true, then it’s broken. We need to start over and not just give it lip service. That’s the biggest difference I see.
There’s also a dramatic sonic range that you guys were able to pull off in a very brief project. How and why do you think Dinner Party ended up being so short?
“If the mantra ‘to protect and serve’ is true, then it’s broken. We need to start over and not just give it lip service.” —Kamasi Washington
Robert Glasper: We just wanted to make a quick statement because people nowadays—and it has been like this for a few years—their attention span is super short. We know how social media is. No one listens to a six-minute song. So it was like, “Let’s make a project where the songs are like long interludes.” We just wanted to make these little musical statements, these little musical appetizers, if you will, and not overdo it, which is why there’s not a lot of soloing. I don’t solo on the album. It’s just vibes. All of us put together, we’ve never done a record separately that was like this. When you get us together, people expect it to have a lot of shit happening. We all worked on To Pimp a Butterfly, but that’s that. There’s a lot of stuff happening. A lot of stuff is coming at you. This is like the total opposite.
How did you decide to let those instrumental tracks just breathe on their own, as opposed to adding Phoelix’s vocals to them?
9th Wonder: We wanted to make it, at first, as more of an instrumental-type project. Phoelix was added to the fold. If you’re thinking about records from the ’70s, whether it be a Roy Ayers record or something like that, there’s songs with singing and some without. Instruments become your lead vocalist, so to speak. That’s what that is. That’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to make sure that we don’t lose that essence. That’s what jazz is in the purest form.
What was the significance of the cover being art of you guys as opposed to photos of you?
KW: We were all talking about what the cover should be. It was an idea that came from my sister. The idea was to try to show our individualism, but also show our connection. She drew us all in a similar style. If you look at the details, it shows a little something about each person. She listened to our individual music and created a little square table that was a combination of all of our different traits, our different approaches. It’s important to show that just because we’re working collectively doesn’t mean we lose our individuality, and vice versa. You don’t need to sacrifice collective work in order to keep your individuality.
“Let’s feed people. Let’s invite everybody to the dinner party so we can discuss our social topics so we can get past this shit, man. Let’s drop some music right now, in the middle of a pandemic with all these motherfuckers killing brothers.” —Terrace Martin
I understand you got the name for the group after it was done.
Terrace Martin: Robert is a genius with this kind of shit because Robert doesn’t think like a musician, and I think that’s important. It’s more important to think like the person that has to work their ass off all day and just go hard with life because that’s what we’re doing the music for. He has that ability, and he said, “Man, the name of this group is Dinner Party.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because everybody’s invited to the dinner party.” You are welcome to the dinner party. Let’s feed people. Let’s cook multiple dishes, and let’s invite everybody to the dinner party so we can discuss our social topics so we can get past this shit, man. Let’s drop some music right now, in the middle of a pandemic with all these motherfuckers killing brothers.
Our people need hugs right now. Hugs and guns. I say hugs and guns, Rob says hugs. I’m full-throttle, the one of the group that’s with that. So it was Dinner Party, and I called 9th. I said, “What do you think about ‘Dinner Party?’” He said, “Whooo.” I called Kamasi and he said it sounded cool. We started talking about dinner parties and what we’ve learned from our going to dinner parties. This conversation is a dinner party. We’re feeding each other. It means so much more than just a dinner party. Let’s exchange information over something that could feed our soul. That’s the fuckin’ vibe. FL