So I’ve been nibbling here and there on Kamasi Washington’s The Epic for close to a year now. It’s one of those albums that I think you have to take in a little at a time, otherwise you’ll get that heavy musical bloat and maybe not go back to it for fear of feeling uneasy or unqualified to attempt another listen. I consider myself a moderate jazz fan. Coltrane, Davis, Monk, Dolphy, Tyner, Shorter, Henderson, Montgomery, and Morgan are my guys, with some other giants thrown in there for good measure. The 60s and early 70s are the era of jazz I frequent the most, as I feel that was the era where the artists were writing for themselves. They took the most risks, especially John Coltrane. Whether you dug his Stellar Regions phase or not, you cannot deny that he was in conversation with a higher power. He was having some kind of existential rap session with the universe. He was on another plane, you dig? I feel that ultimately the artist needs to be writing from some personal level in order for the music to truly “be”. Sure, you can still have great music that isn’t some personal journey. Hell, I think the whole of the 1980s proved that. But those records that people will still be talking about many, many years on, those are the records that an artist cut open a vein and bled on the console for. A Love Supreme, Search For The New Land, Speak No Evil, The Real McCoy, Out To Lunch, Straight, No Chaser, Bitches Brew and too many more for me to include here all felt like personal records. They were musical dictations to the heart and mind of existence itself. Again, I know there’s plenty more records that should be listed here, but for the sake of time and space I will let you mentally add your favorites.
So over the last couple of weeks I’ve dove head first into Kamasi Washington’s The Epic and I think this album should be added to the list of incredible personal statement records. I mean first of all, it’s three albums. Six record sides jam packed with what I would call a jazz history lesson. You get big band, choral, bop, funk, soul, and an overall feel of love for the creation of music. Washington is telling a story, both his own and the story of jazz on this album. Washington was a musical wunderkind of sorts, being an all around musician since he was a kid. Starting out on drums, then piano and clarinet after his dad told him he needed to learn on a harder instrument before picking up the saxophone. Once he did jump into the sax that’s all she wrote. He became a Coltrane disciple and still pretty much is to this day, though he’s broadened his musical horizons on pretty much everything. He learned to groove touring with Snoop Dogg’s touring band, but it wasn’t until he and his longtime friends hunkered down in the studio and laid down the songs they’d been writing and composing for years that The Epic was born.
There’s a lot going on here. I think to new ears this album can be a little much. It swings from big band vibes, to choral sounds, to some seriously hard bop action. You’re not sure where to go in your head with it. For me, upon first listen it felt a little ADD. Most of what I listen to is smaller in scale. Something like Bitches Brew may be daunting to some, but for my ears I lock in immediately. There’s dissonance, but there’s an electricity you can ride through it on. With something as dense and large scale as Washington’s band it’s hard to find a center to latch onto immediately. This is an example of a record that takes a few times going at it to crack its code. But once you do? Oh, baby.
Oddly as it may seem, The Epic feels very traditional. A relatively big band setup that cascades nicely from soulful vocals, African rhythms, 70s soul, and Coltrane/Davis-like horn conversations. There’s no reinvention of the genre here, but there’s a renewed vitality to music that in the wrong hands can come across proficient, but cold. Washington and crew have been playing together so long that the ease they feel in a room playing together comes across in the finished product. I mean, these guys have been playing together for the most part since they were kids. They fell in love with music together and became prodigious players together. How can that not come across in the music?
The album is set up in three different volumes: ‘The Plan’, ‘The Glorious Tale’, and ‘The Historic Repetition’. Within each of these volumes are copious amounts of musical history and a tale of musical enlightenment. In interviews Washington has said it’s a story of him coming up in music and it does play out that way. If you have the LP version you know this thing is a massive 3 LP set with each record side containing densely layered horns, rhythms, and vocals. I’m not going to go into each of the songs because I’d ramble about things I still haven’t quite gotten a firm grasp on. I will talk about a couple tracks that I find key in understanding what is happening on The Epic.
“Change of the Guard” opens ‘The Plan’, and it’s a doozy. It goes from a big brassy opening with ghostly vocals that hang above the proceedings to a mid-section Coltrane-esque sax squalor and back to the main motif that never drops the beat and never sways from the song’s opening groove. Strangely enough, this track is like a cross between ELO and Sun Ra; you have beautiful melody imposed upon this spacey vibe. It’s like cosmic jazz.
“Askim” rides on a wave of cool vibes and an almost Wayne Shorter ala Juju indifference. Thundercat lays some serious bass magic all over this one.
“The Rhythm Changes” is a soulful vocal number that sways and breathes easy thanks to the wonderful vocals of Patrice Quinn. This track really shows the wide range of musical vibes Washington wanted to represent here. Sometimes its not all fractured tonal shifting and hard bop riffs. Sometimes its a stroll through the neighborhood on a hot summer day.
“Leroy and Lanisha” sort of revisits the melancholy vibe of “The Rhythm Changes”, but more like a instrumental jam between Joe Henderson and Vince Guaraldi. There’s a ton of swing in the drums with just a hint of Afro-Cuban in the overall vibe. Sweet and melodious.
“Re Run” shows Kamasi’s orchestral strengths, as well as his innate ability to merge two musical worlds. Strings, vocals, groovy rhythms, and horns come together to give us something completely new to sink our teeth into.
“Clair de Lune” was the big surprise for me. Washington and his crew’s take on the Debussy classic is awe inspiring, breathtaking, and wholly original. This is one of my all time favorite pieces of music to begin with, and for Kamasi to reimagine it as a soulful, lamenting piece of music that would be just at home during a Sunday church service as it would be in a concert hall is pretty mind blowing to me. I can’t say enough about how amazing this version is.
Okay, so there’s so many more great songs on this set, but I don’t have the time to expound on them all. The aforementioned tracks move me. They were instantly recognizable to my ears as future classics. Not just jazz classics, but musical classics in general. Kamasi Washington’s The Epic is one that’s taken a good year for me to soak up and digest. It’s dense and overwhelming, but it’s so worth the work to get down to its grand and masterful center. There’s so much to love here.
Take some time and get to know this record. It’s well worth knowing.