2015 has a true story and carefully constructed musical dream that takes place in a daring release titled ‘Epic’ of the Los Angeles young jazz giant, composer and bandleader Kamasi Washington. He is the hyperactive saxophonist, whose activity varies from “true” jazz to some pop projects. Washington’s career is impressive; it seems that he played literally with everyone from big jazz stars like Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock to such commercially successful rappers as Snoop Dog. The most recent paragraph of his resume is the active participation in the recording of ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ by Kendrick Lamar, who also is a connoisseur of epic forms. One could expect an interesting mix of hip-hop, electronic music and saxophone from Washington’s first solo work. However, even the strictest critics unanimously say that this is a real jazz. One can find features of free jazz, west coast jazz and bebop looking behind the basic genre title. At the same time, no genre label is important because this work is definitely the jazz album of the year and, maybe, of the whole decade.
‘The Epic’ lasts for almost three hours; it was published on Brainfeeder label as three-disc set that includes thirty-two musicians of the orchestra, a choir that consists of twenty people and seventeen musical pieces with the Washington’s score for thirteen of them. Deciding to record such monumental album Washington focuses not only on the conceptions and ideas but also on the musicians. The members of the orchestra are regarded as some of the most modern creative jazz musicians including keyboardist Brandon Coleman, drummer Ronald Bruner Jr., trombonist Ryan Porter, bassist Miles Mosley, bassist Thundercat and his brother, drummer Tony Austin, and pianist Cameron Graves. Finally, the vocals of Patricia Quinn frame the ensemble. The whole group is from Los Angeles, mostly from South Central, and its members – who call themselves the “The West Coast Get Down” – gathered as the teenagers in the streets of Inglewood. A 32-year-old Kamasi knows Bruner since the early childhood and other musicians met at the different time, mostly during school years. The hours that they dedicated to music playing together eventually were not wasted. ‘The Epic’ does not look similar to anything that took place in jazz and Brainfeeder is one of the reasons. This label completely ignores any limits and standards. Moreover, it is not a label in the traditional sense, but rather an unfolding experiment carried by an underground producer Flying Lotus.
Washington’s album was released during the complicated era for jazz music. The question regarding cultural development of jazz still remains unanswered. Nowadays, there is a strong opinion that jazz has exhausted its creative possibilities, and the best of its times remain in the past. Moreover, this genre went away from its primary purpose and became a product of consumption instead of being the original art. However, such opinion is rather controversial. Modern jazz made a transition from the experimental form to the traditional sounds. At the same time, existing sub-genres are actively developing; therefore, leading to a certain stylistic alignment of personality against the backdrop of increased professionalism and boom of technology. Moreover, radio and television contain numerous “funky” and simple forms of jazz. Such context can explain the popularity of simple jazz, but it does not mean that this genre is dead. Currently, this jazz explores itself rather than modern culture. Nevertheless, Washington reached the creative peak of his career because despite debut album he has a long history as a session musician and collaborator. Moreover, Washington manages to combine such completely opposite concepts as the traditional sounds, bold experiments with form and structure and media success. His personal obsession with absolutely different jazz musicians created the versatile album that is completely free of any political context.
The album is divided into three parts titled “The Plan”, “The Glorious Tale” and “The Historical Repetition”. The album starts with a 12-minute ballad titled “Change of the Guard”. Overall, the first part of the album has the same romantic and relaxing mood except for the song named “Final Thought”. The second part contains faster works with the active use of strings and winds that create the atmosphere of an epic journey. Finally, the third part mixes slow ballads with active pieces. While all three parts contain tracks with leading vocals of Patricia Quinn, the words do not play the crucial role in Washington’s music. The primary leading instrument is Kamasi’s saxophone. His solos are always improvisational, fresh and unpredictable. “The Epic” is rather reflective than dance album. Fast pieces with inconsistent tempo patterns, free improvisations and lots of nuances that constantly attack the listener are changed with slow and romantic compositions. Therefore, such album structure causes deep emotions and gives the listeners a possibility to reflect and analyze them.
The album has a clear conception that connects every part with a certain mood. “The Plan” is slow, consistent and thorough as every good plan should be. This part serves as the preparation for the long journey. The second part represents a trip to the world of jazz music and explains why the album is titled “Epic”. Long solo improvisations, the pathos of wind instruments and choral parts create very specific kind of mood. The listener feels that jazz cannot be considered as just music but requires time and effort to understand all its nuances. Finally, the last part returns the listener to the real world with its problems and contradictions. In this context, the first two songs of the last part are the gold jazz standard “Cherokee” and “Malcolm’s Theme”. The first one gives a representation of current jazz showing how such musical standard can sound in the tradition of modern jazz. The second song shows that jazz music has enough power to draw attention to the current social problems. However, the overall conception requires listening to the album for several times for complete understanding.
While every song on this album requires thorough analysis and interpretation, I focus on one of my favorite songs titled “Miss Understanding”. The form of this song reminds “Giant Steps” by John Coltrane but with some differences. The song starts with the strong choral part that holds a slow tempo. However, the first impression of this song quickly appears to be completely wrong. Suddenly furious part attacks the listener and the song begins. The chord progression that is similar to Coltrane changes extremely quickly. Alternating pieces with different tempos are complemented by two different solos played by Kamasi Washington on alto saxophone. Both solos are highly inventive and contain unexpected progressions. The rhythm of the song is constantly changing. For example, during the solos drummer goes full double time swing. The structure and harmony of this song contain the variety of nuances and require a significant musical background from the listener who wants to analyze and interpret Washington’s music. “Miss Understanding” keeps the suspense and raises curiosity. Progression of this song runs away from the listener, hence, forcing him/her to focus on changing rhythm and harmony. Moreover, this is a musical surprise that follows after the completely opposite first part of the album.
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The album sounds exactly like the album named “epic” should sound. It is a triple Jazz album with an orchestra and chorus and with the tracklist that is dedicated to the history of jazz. “The Epic” really wants to be called “To Pimp a Butterfly” from jazz, and, in general, has all the prerequisites for this. I can hardly speak about “The Epic” without getting excited. The variety of techniques, numerous nuances and combination of different concepts are the primary things that I enjoyed. At the same time, I see the amount of time needed for understanding and reflections as the major problem of the album. In general, “Epic” shows that Brainfeeder label has a perfect sense of sound, Thundercat is a great bass player and Washington already showed the master class for his debut. However, when I listen to this album, I feel that there is no need in searching for the answers. It is a pure pleasure just to listen to the music that provides the ability to run away from the world completely for three hours. I also like that Washington tries to tell the story more by sounds than by words, and does not force the listener to immerse in the context immediately but only suggests it. The album definitely deserves all enthusiastic reviews and in my opinion will be included in Jazz Hall of Fame.
“The Epic” album is an exhibition of achievements of jazz as a genre. I can compare this album to the museum of hidden secrets that vary from Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker to Flying Lotus and Sun Ra. Listening to this album is an absolutely unique experience though it is impossible to do in one sitting. Understanding and interpretation of this work may require weeks or, even, years. It is a very inhuman recording both in terms of the scale and individuality. One can hear the references to Davis, Hancock and Coltrane, but hearing Washington in this musical flow is quite difficult from the first listening. However, the challenge of recording the epic album is masterfully performed, and the primary danger for Kamasi is to avoid dwelling on this museum in future.