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48 Hours With Backpack Jazz Producer Kassa Overall

It’s fitting. After countless mobile studio sessions, catching up with collaborators when time permitted and lugging his instruments around the world (literally) on his back (literally), Kassa Overall finished his most exploratory work to date, in solitude.

He rented a not-so-fancy motel room for one night and decided that the album would be completed there. Just him, a pizza, and a backpack full of potential.

What he created was an album full of life. An audio retelling of triumph, rock-bottom and all of the emotions in-between. Part jazz, part hip-hop, part spoken word, part "Why do we have to label art?"

When it was time to hand the album over to the world, Overall was in Portland — his performance at the PDX Jazz Festival coincided with its release.

Through audio, letters, captured conversations, photography and video, KMHD and OPB chronicled the hours just before Kassa Overall's Brownswood Records debut: "I Think I'm Good."

Feb. 27 | Seattle To Portland via Amtrak, Train 501, Car 8 | 7:21 a.m. PT

It’s two days before the release of Kassa Overall’s second album, and he's in his home state of Washington, heading to Portland to play during the PDX Jazz Festival. Boarding Amtrak, he’s relieved to get a few hours to work on some music, to look out on a passing landscape of visible walls.

Sprawled out across the car's desk, he has set up his studio and is working and reworking things. A phone call comes in for an interview, so he has to tell his bandmates (himself) to take five. Afterward, he's looking at the time. Soon, he will dock in Portland to start this new leg of promo.

But first ...

Kassa Tells A Story, Part I

He’s in Bali. And finally, a rest. After putting his life into the album, it’s time to relax. Tranquility. But wait: Anderson .Paak is in town. Also, .Paak learns that Kassa is there. And as musicians do, .Paak reaches out to him to come hang, to come play during his show, to jam!

He can’t say no to a fellow artist. A fellow drummer. A brother. And so, a well-needed vacation morphs into another session, another endless night without relaxation, with Kassa telling the universe, "Please don’t kill me."

Here in present day, there will be no sleeping on the train. It’s back to prepping for what will (unbeknownst to Kassa) be the first live performance at the new studios at Portland’s jazz station, KMHD.

KMHD | noon PT

When Kassa arrives 25 minutes before going on he's fully immersed in setting up his equipment. When learning that this is the first live performance in the new KMHD studios, he smiles. "Seems like that's how all my shows are lately," he says.

He's not rattled. In fact, the spontaneity may have calmed any nerves.

An hour later, conversations are flying about an amazing set, an introspective moment and a good in-depth interview with more laughs than lulls. But it’s what the audience didn’t hear, and what the cameras didn’t catch, that is … radio.

Radio couldn’t hear Overall and KMHD Director Matt Fleeger using hand signals to speak:

Are we on yet?

No not yet, you're good.

Am I good?

You’re a go, go for it. Keep going! Don’t stop! Yeah! This is it!

All the listeners heard was this:

Flying Fish Company | 2:27 p.m. PT

Kassa needs a place get a bite to recharge. And since there's no such thing as a landline anymore, he also needs to charge his phone. He ends up on East Burnside at a new spot that is spot on with his dietary setlist (he's a pescatarian).

Food ordered: Curried mussels, fish and chips, the Louie salad and grilled oysters.

Now he's feeling better. Refreshed. There are compliments to the chef. Now it's on to the next.

But first ... 

Kassa Tells A Story, Part II: He's in Japan. He's also in the company of some wonderful musicians. While there, he asks Tomoki Sanders to fall through during his show and play. Fast-forward: Kassa is on stage playing. The crowd is right there with him, following his lead. From the stage he notices Sanders in the back of the club, watching. Through the crowd, all Kassa can see is Sanders' eyes. Kassa waves him up. But did Sanders see him? Probably not. Kassa and the band continue, creating farther and further, until — out of nowhere — the girth of a saxophone's message comes in right in on time. It's Sanders, walking up on stage. He's playing. Kassa describes the moment: "It just opened up."

Music Millennium | 6 p.m. PT

It’s the third studio configuration of the day. A live in-store set at a place where nothing comes second to music. Kassa is up in the balcony, performing down to customers and looking out on years of recorded music so great that — for some — it serves as their halfway house.

One person watching the performance was just in the store to look around. Another had heard KMHD during lunch and decided to check Kassa out in person. They both stay for the entire set. They both meet and talk to Kassa afterwards. They both leave with personal notes written in Sharpie on their brand-new vinyl.

Feb. 28| Jack London Revue | 8 p.m. PT

Downtown Portland. There’s a speakeasy there that plays jazz — and has no boundaries. Regulars tell their friends, "You can find me below the old Rialto." Tonight, it’s packed to capacity. Characters are all afoot. One off to the side, drinking alone deep in thought. Was she happy? Surprised eyes meeting in passing, as if to say, "I know you see me." Lovers angling for a spot to sway together. A sidewinder with darkness in mind, hoping to find light in an artist he’s only heard in passing.

Kassa is backstage having dinner. His bandmates and frequent collaborators are with him: Paul Wilson on drums, Julius Rodriguez on keys and Carlos Overall on saxophone.

They take the stage with a playful but confident flare. Kassa tells the audience that his album is out, right now! They scream. He performs. The patrons are squarely in his palms. The show is part hip-hop symposium, part beat making tutorial, part jazz show, part "got me a plan," part "let's just wing it." 

In between songs he makes the audience laugh. His older brother joins him on stage to play sax on a few joints. Kassa plays those drums like they're an extension of his body. Kassa sings a song about love. Kassa follows with 36 bars about the harsh realities of planet Earth.

After the show, after the encore: he thanks the city and the Jack London for a great night. A great 48 hours. He doesn't say goodbye. He doesn't go back to the greenroom. He tells the crowd that the night is young. He's ready to meet them, to talk to all of them.

Then he walks off stage and does just that — for over an hour.

Kassa Overall exudes an energy that is positive, hopeful. But a light such as that usually has a counterbalance: an equally powerful dark side. His album is that duality expressed in sound.

The purpose of an artist is to look into the past, to reflect on the present times, to glare at the globe that is our future. It’s Kassa Overall's latest artistic contribution that describes the collective energy of our known world today — and we should have known by the title: "I Think I’m Good."

Kassa Overall performs live at KMHD.
David Stuckey /
Kassa Overall performs live at KMHD.
Kassa Overall, Paul Wilson and Julius Rodriguez getting loose on stage at the Jack London Revue.
David Stuckey /
Kassa Overall, Paul Wilson and Julius Rodriguez getting loose on stage at the Jack London Revue.
On the track "Landline," Overall recalls: "...all I wanted to do was play drums like my brother. He picked up the saxaphone and sounded like Dexter Gordon." Here, Kassa's brother Carlos plays at the Jack London Revue.
David Stuckey /
On the track "Landline," Overall recalls: "...all I wanted to do was play drums like my brother. He picked up the saxaphone and sounded like Dexter Gordon." Here, Kassa's brother Carlos plays at the Jack London Revue.
Kassa Overall performs a track from his most personal album to date, "I Think I'm Good."
David Stuckey /
Kassa Overall performs a track from his most personal album to date, "I Think I'm Good."

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting