Kamasi Washington – The Epic
(Brainfeeder. BFCD050. Three-CD Set. CD Review by Dan Bergsagel)
Kamasi Washington is an interesting case study in how to approach a contemporary jazz career. No records have been released under his name for seven years, and one has to go back to his debut more than a decade ago to find a disc pressed by a label that isn't his own. Yet, despite a sparse discography, he's been extraordinarily busy: gigging in LA with his Next Step chidhood collaborators; guesting in on Stanley Clarke, Harvey Mason and Kendrick Lamar albums; and - ever since he and ten friends spent thirty days recording non-stop in 2011 - selecting, mastering and producing the three volume, three-hour aptly titled album The Epic.
The first track defines the mood, both in conceptual intention and musical style. Change of the Guard is the story of a recurring dream of martial arts tradition, apprenticeship and endless renewal. And it is presented through the relentless high energy saxophone and rich orchestration of soaring strings and a cosmic choir. It is joined by snappy tunes and strong united horn lines on Final Thought, interspersed with more conventional ballads and languid horns before the explosive raw tenor work closing the quarter of an hour The Next Step,swings in, with a skulking mood and string ambience. The optimistic and uplifting vocals of Patrice Quinn on The Rhythm Changes completes volume one. This is The Plan, a positive opening, preparing and setting off to explore new lands.
Miss Understanding launches the journey with a faster bop feel, with blistering improvisation and bristling tension, closely followed by the love story call and response between Ryan Porter's searching trombone and Washington's matter-of-fact tenor. Adventure steps in when the eerie string wash of the start ofRe Run gives in to the combined percussive shuffle of Tony Austin and Leon Mobley and Mulatu Astatke-tinted off kilter horn lines before slipping into grimier funk.
Following on from the epic-within-an-epic heartfelt vocal anthem Henrietta Our Hero volume two The Glorious Tale closes on the bad-ass 70s chase scene The Magnificent 7 - blaxploitation with slighlty less wah pedal – which when pushed by the urgent drums and bass and driving untiring chord changes climaxes as an exhausted battle finale from Cameron Groves and the nimble Thundercat.
The reprise of rich percussion, tense funk and previous themes in Re Run Home self referentially opens volume three,The Historic Repetition, but left clean without the smoothing and averaging of the strings and choir. It finishes with the fusion intrumental vehicle track The Message, but not before filling the space between with the only three non-Washington composed tracks to feature on the three volumes.
The cheery Ray Noble standard Cherokee is swapped for the expansive melodrama of Brandon Coleman's wailing organ leading loose and pensive horns in the old american syle lethargic adaptation of Debussy's Clair de Lune.Washington pays homage to Terence Blanchard's cinematic compositions and recent political history with Malcolm's Theme, heavy with rising keys, backing chants and screams, and a storming tenor solo before cracked recorded snippets of the man himself appear.
The three volumes are pieced together to work as an ensemble, much in the Tolkein fantasy trilogy format.However perhaps understanding that people are often short of an afternoon to devote to one album, each volume is sculpted to work as a standalone album too, with the final chapter perhaps the most robust on its own with its funk, soul, fusion and bop interwoven into the tighter package.
The facts that album's record label is Brainfeeder, run by Flying Lotus, and that The Epic's distributors in the UK are the ever admirable Ninja Tune) point to a conclusion that while the album is, and undeniably, a jazz odyssey, this album also has the potential to access a different audience, whose range is bolstered by Washington's time playing with Nas, Snoop Dogg, and Kendrick Lamar, and puts him alongside other strong jazz/hip-hop crossover artists like Robert Glasper and Lalah Hathaway. This side of Washington's work is often focused on, but with this album his traditional jazz collaborations are much more pertinent. Maybe this strong album effort could be better understood as a West Coast alternative to the clean fast fun of their contemporaries in the Snarky Puppy family – two enormous musical friendship collectives experimenting with new sounds yet maintaining deep respect for the musical traditions that they're building on. Where Snarky Puppy bring in an orchestra of synth, Washington brings in a real life orchestra.
An Epic can be defined as a long poem derived from ancient oral tradition narrating deeds and adventures of legendary figures. One certainly feels that this album sets out its stall to tell an updated (certainly long!) story of the musical jazz-relevant themes of the last 50 years, but still making sure to give sufficient praise to key historic legends in the process. As an album it proves it self an epic many times over – a three hour, three volume experiment, full of swelling orchestration and arrangement, and a brave diversity of genres. After his successes playing in other musician's outfits, this collection could be the real launch of an epic career for Washington as a band leader in his own right.