Dense and inherently socially conscious, Kamasi Washington’s music requires a great deal of time and effort to fully process.
As has been noted elsewhere, many listeners will come to the music of Kamasi Washington through his work with Kendrick Lamar. Equally dense and inherently socially conscious, Washington’s music requires a great deal of time and effort to fully process. At a sprawling three hours, The Epic is just that. But those willing to spend the required time will find a fascinating distillation of sounds and styles blended together to create something vaguely familiar, yet wholly of its own.
A fluid soloist with a tone somewhere on the spectrum between John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, his is an often fiery approach to the instrument not only informed by these two giants, but able to transcend their influence to create a voice uniquely his own. No small feat in a music filled with dominant, iconic voices that have been appropriated to varying degrees by countless players over the last 100 years. To bring something new and vital to jazz is a rare occurrence in the 21st century.
Nearly overwhelming in scope, Washington’s approach calls to mind that of those pushing the envelope in the late 1960s, incorporating elements of funk, soul, gospel, choral, world, and chamber music to create something beyond the traditional jazz arrangements. These massive, sprawling compositions were informed as much by the urgency of their time and the social issues of the day as the crossbreeding of musical styles taking place in all forms of music. Here Washington and a host of like-minded players employ a similar philosophy, mixing styles old and new to help revitalize an aging art form.
Broken into three separate volumes (“The Plan,” “The Glorious Tale” and “The Historic Repetition”) the music outlines the basic narrative of a master teacher awaiting the maturation of his potential pupils and a worthy challenger. Believing that day to have come, he surrenders to one of three challengers, only to find it to have been a daydream. He then realizes by the time a worthy challenger arrives, he will have been long dead. In this, Washington and company essentially sum up the narrative of jazz in the last thirty years or so and provide their own creation myth.
While there have been numerous musicians up to the challenge, none were worthy of taking on the masters of the genre, pushing the music forward in a manner comparable to its revolutionary practitioners. With The Epic, Washington states his case for inclusion with the best and brightest jazz minds of the 20th century. And given the sheer audacity of the project and its rousing success, his is a case clearly and definitively stated.
By using strings and wordless choral backing for much of the album, supplementing the more traditional jazz instrumentation, these performances are granted a depth and grandeur not often heard in contemporary jazz recordings. Because of this, The Epic feels more of the experimental late-‘60s than the early-‘10s. And not coincidentally, much of this has to do with the social climates within which these recordings were made. With racial tensions at arguably their highest levels since the ‘60s, this is music that strives to convey the vital urgency and frustrations of a people.
But where many of those recordings were merely free-form blowing sessions, The Epic is built on a tightly structured melodic intricacy. With so many moving parts and pieces it can become overwhelming attempting to take in everything at once. Employing two bassists (Thundercat and Miles Mosley), two drummers (Ronald Bruner, Jr. and Tony Austin), a keyboardist (Brandon Coleman), pianist (Cameron Graves), trombonist (Ryan Porter), and vocalist (Patrice Quinn), not to mention the host of strings and chorus, Washington has assembled a massive backing group to help convey his artistic vision.
There’s a conversational conviviality to these sessions, evidence of the musicians’ long history with one another, the majority of the players having known each other since childhood. This familiarity informs both the music and their approach to instrumental interplay. As if anticipating the next move of each, the music rolls by unhurried, thrillingly seamless in its intricacy.
“Final Thought” features an urgent, frenetic solo from Washington that, as it builds atop a vaguely Latin groove, devolves into a series of pained shrieks before settling back into a unison melody. While perhaps not necessarily the intention, it’s hard to listen to a performance like this and find it wholly removed from the social context within which it was created.
Only on the blistering, elegiac “Malcolm’s Theme”, the penultimate track of “The Historic Repetition,” does the music convey explicitly the urgency of the times, both lyrically and in Washington’s brilliantly pleading solo. It’s a powerfully chaotic performance that perfectly encapsulates the current climate of social unrest and frustration within the African American community. It also serves to sadly underline the dual meaning of the section’s title. More than any other track here, “Malcolm’s Theme” is a vital aural encapsulation of a very specific time in our history.
Throughout, echoes of the past abound. Rather than being curatorial or overly reverential, they are employed in a manner similar to sampling in hip-hop, serving as a basis for something new and vital. It’s an acknowledgement of the past while looking squarely into the future. Honoring the music and its history without being overly reverential and bringing to it a new sense of life and possibility, The Epic is a landmark recording and a line in the sand for all those who decried the state of contemporary jazz. Kamasi Washington has created nothing short of a masterpiece.