Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Kamasi Washington ‎– The Epic (2015)

Style: Fusion, Contemporary Jazz, Psychedelic, Soul-Jazz
Format: CD, Vinyl, Digital
Label: Brainfeeder ‎– BFCD050

Volume 1 - The Plan
1-1.   Change of the Guard
1-2.   Askim
1-3.   Isabelle
1-4.   Final Thought
1-5.   The Next Step
1-6.   The Rhythm Changes

Volume 2 - The Glorious Tale
2-1.   Miss Understanding
2-2.   Leroy and Lanisha
2-3.   Re Run
2-4.   Seven Prayers
2-5.   Henrietta Our Hero
2-6.   The Magnificent 7

Volume 3 - The Historic Repetition
3-1.   Re Run Home
3-2.   Cherokee
3-3.   Clair de Lune
3-4.   Malcolm's Theme
3-5.   The Message

Acoustic Bass, Electric Bass – Miles Mosley
Artwork [Additional] – Amoni Washington, Patrice Quinn
Artwork [Cover Background Art "The Elixir"] – Patrick Henry Johnson
Cello – Artyom Manukyan, Ginger Murphy
Choir [Choir Vocal] – Cameron Graves, Charles Jones, Dawn Norfleet, Dexter Story, Dwight Trible, Gina Manziello, Jason Morales, Maiya Sykes, Natasha F Agrama, Patrice Quinn, Steven Wayne, Taylor Graves, Thalma de Freitas, Tracy Carter
Drums – Ronald Bruner Jr., Tony Austin
Electric Bass – Thundercat
Keyboards, Organ, Piano – Brandon Coleman
Layout [Album Artwork Layout] – Adam Stover, Sol Washington
Lead Vocals – Dwight Trible, Patrice Quinn
Management – Atom Factory, Banch Abegaze, Troy Carter
Management [Agency] – ICM, Mitch Blackman
Mastered By [Mastering Engineer] – Stephen Marcussen
Mixed By [Mixing Engineer] – Benjamin Tierney
Percussion – Leon Mobley
Photography By [Cover & Back Photo] – Mike Park
Piano, Organ – Cameron Graves
Tenor Saxophone – Kamasi Washington
Tracking By [Additional Tracking Engineer] – Brian Rosemeyer, Chris Constable
Tracking By [Assistant Tracking Engineer] – Carson Lehman, Conrad Leon, David Lee, Julie Everson, Tyler Shields
Tracking By [Lead Tracking Engineer] – Tony Austin
Trombone – Ryan Porter
Trumpet – Igmar Thomas
Viola – Andrea Whitt, Molly Rodgers
Violin – Jennifer Simone, Lucia Micarelli, Neel Hammond, Paul Cartwright, Tylana Renga Enomoto

It is probably impossible to discuss Kamasi Washington's new record—all three impressive hours of it—without copping to at least someawareness of two extra-musical truths. The first of these holds that, as a member of the studio wrecking crew that brought Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly into being, this saxophonist-composer is unusually well poised to secure the attention of listeners who have previously been uninterested in jazz. (This past spring's celebration of all-things-TPAB was sufficiently strong that Billboard even published a well-reported piece that detailed exactly how Lamar's album came to feature so many jazz figures, including Washington.) 
The second truth is that jazz could use a few more people with Washington's cachet in the wider world—touring with Snoop Dogg, or putting out albums on Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder imprint. Admitting this is not tantamount to saying that jazz is in some unhealthy creative state (it isn't), but rather that the music currently faces an uphill struggle in the marketplace (as it often has). 
You can see hints of these outside considerations in some of the pre-release writing around The Epic—virtually all of which cites Washington's hip-hop associations as a reason to pay attention to his big debut as a jazz bandleader. (Washington cut one prior album as part of a collective, in 2004, but this set is his real coming-out party.) One can imagine other elite contemporary jazz artists grinding teeth while checking Twitter, muttering to themselves: if anyone paid attention to me, they'd notice the post-turntablism beats in my music. 
Given all this, it's something of a gobsmacking paradox to discover what a hip-hop-free zone The Epic is, and how enamored of jazz's past it turns out to be. This triple-album set is an extravagant love letter to (among other things): soul jazz, John Coltrane (various periods), and 1970s fusion leaders like Miles Davis and Weather Report. The Epic's Disc 1 opener, "Change of the Guard", might as well be titled "We Love All Kinds of 'Trane". Its ringing opening piano chords sound almost entirely lifted from the playbook of McCoy Tyner, the pianist in Coltrane's so-called "Classic Quartet." (That's the group responsible for A Love Supreme.) The opening theme in the saxes is something that could only have been written after "Impressions". And the harmonious writing for Washington's string section recalls posthumous Coltrane releases like Infinity—tracks from which featured orchestral overdubs supervised by Alice Coltrane (who is, as you may have read, Flying Lotus's aunt). Toward the end of the 12-minute tune, Washington's tenor sax solo veers off into flights of screeching intensity that were the hallmark of Coltrane's later groups—specifically the ones that also included Pharoah Sanders. (Who is, by the way, still active—and still great, on the evidence of last year's record with the São Paulo Underground.) 
What The Epic does come to sound like, over the course of its significant running time, is a generational intervention—an educational tool that widens the definition of styles that fall under "jazz classicism." With his writing for string sections and chorus, Washington even flirts with that most dreaded of appellations: smooth. But these specific choices also wind up paying dividends: The calmly spiritual voices and Washington's wailing playing during the back half of "Askim" feels novel. 
Three hours is a lot of music, and Washington uses the space to range freely—the R&B vocals of Patrice Quinn crop up roughly once per disc, and there are long sections that feel indebted to grittier funk and soul. Washington has a healthy sense of melodrama, which is especially clear whenever the chorus swoops in with open-hearted "ooohs" and "aaahs", aiming straight for the listener's gooseflesh. Meantime, some of the longer, less ambitious instrumental tracks (like "Isabelle") play things much safer, in a kind of chill-jazz mode that features greasy-soul-organ and tasteful solos from Washington's large cast of skilled supporters (like electric bassist Thundercat and trombonist Ryan Porter). While faultlessly executed, these are the only moments across the music's three-hour sprawl that resemble padding. On the uptempo, high-energy music, like the updated Miles Davis-isms of "Re Run Home", as well the potent Disc 3 closer, "The Message", Washington and his band truly excel. 
The big news is that The Epic actually makes good on its titular promise without bothering to make even a faint-hearted stab in the direction of fulfilling its pre-release hype. If you came for the hip-hop associations, and can't listen for anything else, you will surely be disappointed. But to listen like that is to cheat yourself. If you want rapping over contemporary jazz, you can find it elsewhere. If you're in the mood for acoustic adaptations of electronic-music practices, look to Vijay Iyer Trio's recent Break Stuff (specifically, the track "Hood", which is a shout-out to Detroit DJ Robert Hood). You can find more studiously contemporary R&B vocals on Robert Glasper's recent Black Radio series. Kamasi Washington's epic isn't the place for those things—though it is also a zone of surprise. Instead of a self-conscious attempt to seize someone else’s idea of the zeitgeist, it's a large and generous canvas, clearly created in the hopes of attracting new visitors to the post-Coltrane wing of the jazz museum. At this point, that project is its own form of radicalism.
Seth Colter Walls / Pitchfork