The tree of life of jazz grew strong from blues, swing, bebop to cool and branched out into various directions like funk, fusion and free jazz. Today it still stands tall. Adding something fresh to this one-hundred-year-plus history isn’t quite an easy task. However what is fresh? Something truly new and innovating or finding your place within this history by means of your own creative terms? Kamasi Washington chose the latter path and released a three-hour sprawl called The Epic which takes you deep into the heart of jazz.
Music is a birthright to Kamasi Washington (born 1981). Washington was introduced to music from a very young age on by his father, a professional saxophonist/high school music teacher and his mother, who is a gifted flutist. After trying out several instruments the then twelve year old Washington found a deep devotion in the tenor saxophone, an instrument that shaped his further musical career. While studying he came into contact with many guild masters of jazz such as, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Kenny Burrell and Gerald Wilson. This network proved to be a significant push in the back. He performed with the aforementioned masters, founded his own band and in between also won first prize in the prestigious John Coltrane Music Competition. During the end of his rookie years Washington also began to take interest in other forms of music, from classical, electronica to hip hop. ‘New’ masters, like Snoop Dog, Raphael Saadiq were eager to play with him at their side. His recent contributions to Flying Lotus’’ You’re Dead! (2014), wayward ode to jazz fusion and Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ (2015), focused the attention on his first real solo album, The Epic, which is under review here.
The three-volume jazz set of which The Epic consist has no clear core. Instead all volumes, consecutively titled The Plan, The Glorious Tale and The Historic Repetition are odes to the soul jazz pioneers of the late fifties and the fusion leaders of the seventies. Moreover The Epic also is a direct love letter to John Coltrane. Various stages of Trane’s career are all heard on the 12-minute opener of the first disk, ‘Change of the Guard’. Pieces that remind of Impressions (1963), A Love Supreme (1965) and Trane’s later groups are harmoniously patched together with help of a string section. Washington emotional tenor sax solo during the midpiece is phenomenal and sets the level of the hours to come to the highest standards. Tempo changes characterize the further progression of the first disk, on ‘Isabelle’ he gears down the pace of the 32-piece orchestra only to set things aflame again on ‘Final Thought’.
The Epic’s second disk, The Glorious Tale, Washington still firmly controls his orchestra together with the 20-person choir with an compositional overture that suddenly sweeps left to, again, a Trane-like energetic start as we heard on Giant Steps (1960) and then to the right, reminding of Miles Davis’s Milestones (1958) classic ‘Two Base Hit’. Further on Washington effectively uses the three hour space he created for himself to bring in some lengthy sax, trombone and trumpet play added with free flowing drumming on ‘Seven Prayers’. The melodramatics is completed during ‘Henrietta Our Hero’ on which he fully gives room to Patrice Quinn’s warm R&B vocals. In a downright soul-filled composition listers are lulled into a trance only to wake up when the choir and Washington’s tenor sax swells out. ‘The Magnificent 7’ marks the end of the second disk. Indeed this track also agains adds a new masterpiece to The Epic. Under pressure of the swirling sax, the high speed piano play of Cameron Graves, the dexterous bass play of Miles Mosley and some salvo drumming rise to the occasion which eventually unfolds into the most complete jazz piece I’ve heard in recent years.
The Historic Repetition initial approach is more about a sophisticated feel. Whilst ‘Re Run Home’ is groovy supplemented with some latin percussion pulsing underneath, ‘Cherokee’ is Washington’s interpretation of Paul Noble’s smooth jazz standard. ‘The Indian Love Song’ as elaborated by Quinn seem very straightforward, yet when eventually progressing to the B-section also turns out to be the cosiest song on the album. After this a very original slow-dance reinterpretation Debussy’s Clair de Lune and an immersive tribute to the life of Malcolm X foreshadows the ending of three hours of music. However on the The Message’ most band members show off their skills one more time by experimentally mixing up modern fusion and funk. Herewith the last volume, thus the whole set, is ended with a bona fide statement.
Although The Epic offers no real progression in jazz, the album is still fresh enough to call adventurous. Of course the shared sense behind all those hours of music is to celebrate the work Horace Silver, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter and many more. I’ll bet these legends would be (or still are) very proud of what Kamasi Washington achieves right here. Washington himself proves to be more than a hip hop side-kick, delivering jazz with the highest production value. He’s a composer, production editor and bandleader in one who freely lets creativity flow but is always in control. “He just plays the craziest shit, man. I mean, everything, the past, present, the future”, so says Flying Lotus, owner of the Brainfeeder label on which the album is put out. I have no reason to question that. Although It must be said that when comparing the first two disks to this third volume, the latter is probably the least balanced.
Given all this, a triple-album like this deserves the title ‘epic’ and on top of that also deserves a very proud Kamasi Washington on it’s front cover. The grandeur is there, the extravagance is there and passion is there. Sure, new memories are created with pieces of old but isn’t that precisely what standing on the shoulders of giants is all about?
Kamasi Washington will visit the Dutch ‘Le Guess Who? ’festival in Utrecht coming November. Al full report of last years festival can be found here.
Label: Brainfeeder, 2015
Volume 1: The Plan
- Change of the Guard (12:16)
- Askim (12:35)
- Isabelle (12:13)
- Final Thought (6:32)
- The Next Step (14:49)
- The Rhythm Changes (7:44)
Volume 2: The Glorious Tale
- Miss Understanding (8:46)
- Leroy and Lanisha (9:24)
- Re Run (8:20)
- Seven Prayers (7:36)
- Henrietta Our Hero (7:14)
- The Magnificent 7 (12:46)
Volume 3: The Historic Repetition
- Re Run Home (14:06)
- Cherokee (8:14)
- Clair de Lune (11:08)
- Malcolm’s Theme (8:41)
- The Message (11:09)
Review by Wander Meulemans // 170715