[Author’s Note: This article is a patchwork of criticism, anecdotes and interviews. The personal interactions I recall were not in preparation for this piece, but none of what I mention is directly quoted, nor was the information off the record. I personally transcribed Anthony Valadez’s interview of Kamasi Washington for use in this article. Kamasi is a soft talker and a couple of words may be misquoted. If you want to report any errors in the transcript, e-mail me any corrections at firstname.lastname@example.org .]
A 173-minute long jazz album that even some of the most enthused of us will not sit through the entirety of more than five times come winter is the best album of the last five months.
So how did we get here? To hear the artist in question, South Central saxophonist Kamasi Washington, tell it in this interview with Anthony Valadez:
“Well, what happened is [Flying Lotus] initially asked me if I wanted to make a record, but yeah yeah sure, ‘I love what you guys are doing over at Brainfeeder. What kind of record you want me to make?’ He was like, ‘whatever kind of record you wanna make.’ So it was, like, it was very liberating for me. So I hit up all my dudes, and I was like, ‘Yo, I’m gonna need y’all for a couple of days to do this record for Brainfeeder.’ And everybody I hit up was like, ‘Man, I need to record something, too. I should go in with you.’ So we just, like you said, we decided to lock out a studio for 30 days and we had this staggering amount of music at the end of it. Like we had eight albums, like 190 songs, like two terabytes worth of music. It was, like, crazy. We literally filled up the whole hard drive of the computer. So I walked away with 45 songs and they were all good. That’s why it took me a minute to shrink it down to 17. So Lotus knew about the 45. So I told him, ‘Look, these are the best 17 and I’m gonna reduce these.’ My plan was to reduce those to one album. At the same time, I was writing these string and choir arrangements around stuff. So I was trying to just determine what it was going to be, but I couldn’t decide. It was like every song was, like, necessary. So somebody was like, you should start writing and then you’ll figure out which songs you wanna keep. So I was listening to the music a lot, a lot, like way more than I should have and I think it just crept into my subconscious. And I watch a lot of anime and kung-fu movies, so I started having these dreams and the songs on these records were kind of like the soundtracks to these dreams. I don’t know, I started waking up and writing them down and it turned into this whole long fully in-depth story, and like each part of the album was a part of the story, so like, then I really couldn’t make my mind up. So I was like, something is telling me this is supposed to be the album. So I went back to Lotus, and I was like, ‘Yo, uh…” and he’s like, ‘Yeah, so what’s the album going to be?’ I was like, “Uh…it’s going to be 17 songs on a triple disc.’ and he just laughed like, ‘I knew you were going to do that,’ and he was like, ‘alright, let’s do it!’ and that was it. That’s how it happened.”
For me, it starts at the tail end of 2013. I had finished a public relations internship at an organization that promotes jazz music, education, and performances in Columbia, Missouri, as well as having just put the final touches on my year-end blogging. A friend of mine brought up impending albums by Sheela Bringi and Kamasi Washington, the latter a jazz album on Brainfeeder records. Even at that point, a jazz album on Brainfeeder wasn’t a stretch. Label boss Flying Lotus’ work aside, Ras G had been making Sun Ra-indebted hip-hop beats in L.A. for years at that point, and months earlier, released his excellent Back on the Planet for the label. The Kamasi Washington album was an exciting prospect, because, from the start, there was a not your father’s jazz album angle to play, but this notion was cause for equal concern that corny crossover was afoot.
Details on saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s album, appropriately titled The Epic, surfaced a short time before the recent Kendrick Lamar album, which he played saxophone and arranged strings for, was released. I was still enthused for this album, but didn’t imagine this album would be received as well as it has. A lot of that has to do with his work on To Pimp A Butterfly. He finally won a hipster audience at a very convenient time. What’s more is that he pulled off the solo album sans Jazzmatazz.
The album itself is bound to attract uninitiated bantering of, “ya know, that John Coltrane plays some fine jazz music.” Granted, the eras of the genre that Coltrane lead bands in is one that Washington and the other players cull from, but this master class in self-expression was born of a desire to not make My Favorite Things. He’s 34, and age plays into The Epic quite a bit. For one, every choice made here is much more thought out than on his last album as a member of Young Jazz Giants. There is also the narrative of reclaiming jazz for a new time and generation. Kamasi Washington’s mission statement is one that he means and he does a better job at showing than telling. He’s not trying to make jazz cool, but rather being himself. As such, it has been Washington who has kept this press cycle around his album from being painfully corny, despite the efforts of us writers.
Jazz won’t be as en vogue as it used to. Around the time psychedelic drugs was leaving its foothold in music, jazz music was as challenging as it was classic: think Karma, Journey In Satchidananda, Universal Consciousness, and Miles Davis’ best ever run of albums (1967’s Miles Smiles to 1974’s Get Up With It). All of these things are far superior to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Club Hearts Band, but to call Get Up With It an acquired taste to put it politely.
This is a time of year where I have resigned to become overwhelmed with the feelings I had last year when Chicago legend DJ Rashad passed away, and especially how his classic 2013 album, Double Cup, provided in a kaleidoscopic view into all of the possibilities of footwork as a fusion genre and suitable at-home listening. The albums mentioned in the pervious paragraph informed how jazz could and would interact with other genres. These are also dense, challenging works that might turn off potential listeners from the genre at large. While Washington has made something that is clearly his own and The Epic is none of those albums, this is a tradition he cannot be divorced from. It’s a tradition that allows a three-hour long album with songs routinely clocking over 10 minutes to make the genre more popular among people his age and under.
In Columbia, Missouri, the jazz scene is more active than it appears from the outside looking in. Sure, it’s old people and dinner clubs to an extent, but the shows are routinely played by some of the best session players you’ve written off as boring jazz musicians. At its helm is Jon Poses, who I’ve read has previously written for Downbeat and Spin (I was not able to track down anything he’s written for either, nor have I discussed this with him) and is the director of the “We Always Swing” Jazz Series (Full Disclosure: I have previously interned here and Poses is my former boss), which is his vessel of live jazz advocacy in Mid-Missouri. He also scouts, going to shows in hubs such as Chicago and New York to look for acts to perform in Columbia. He’s a human being, but is perhaps described as a walking library. His organization succeeds because there’s an audience for it. It’s usually not the college kids that inhabit the area around its brick and mortar structure, unless of course, a Columbia Missourian intern is looking for a story and stumble upon the one that is Poses’ life.
If jazz music is a monolith, it’s more venerable than what’s driving traffic on the music Internet and packing dingy bars. But Washington does have something to offer jazz diehards like Poses. He studied under the legendary Kenny Burrell at UCLA, where Burrell has served as the Direct of Jazz Studies at UCLA, where Washington is an alumnus, since 1996. That’s not to mention work with Herbie Hancock, Snoop Dogg, and Chaka Khan. Washington’s “performed with” credentials are fucking long and consistently impressive to jazz diehards and “he had me at played saxophone on Kendrick Lamar’s album” types. At 34, he has earned his stripes. The media brouhaha around The Epic is a well-deserved reward. As it stands, he’s a pivotal figure in a series of Los Angeles albums that celebrate self, tradition, and music. In 2015, the music of Los Angeles is more important than any one genre.
The album itself is advantageous, taking three hours to show the range of Kamasi Washington and his West Coast Get Down. It’s a collection of stunning moments, from Miles Mosley’s upright bass solo on “The Magnificent 7” to Brandon Coleman’s organ dragging “Final Thought” into Steely Dan territory. On average, it’s not as funky as You’re Dead! or Two Pimp A Butterfly, two albums that The Epic will be hopelessly married to, but it gets there. Over two hours into the album, “Re Run Home” arrives and at the risk of soaring into cliché, it’s a track that invites you to call it cosmic space goop. By the time the band goes into a cover of Ray Noble’s “Cherokee”, it’s all overwhelming, and Patrice Quinn’s vocal take drives that part home.
The superimposition of Malcolm X’s Valentine’s Day 1965 speech at Ford Auditorium the night his house was firebombed delivers the gravitas that Kendrick Lamar’s kayfabe Tupac interview failed to. The inclusions of both are poignant because they’re both examples of philosophical expression in the face of murder. They’re fitting because of how Los Angeles has become a haven for musical treatises by cerebral assassins. The Epic isn’t a reaction to the times that black people are living in, but considering that it’s Malcolm X’s words, and those words specifically, surfacing on a triple album where those seldom come, despite the presence of a vocalist in the band, there is room to analyze Washington from the presence of black manhood. The speech is a convex meniscus on top of the sea of references that make up the multitudes of Washington and his band expressed on The Epic and it serves that role for a reason.
Now don’t let feature stories and reviews fool you: jazz isn’t back. The evidence is that every jazz album that garners any attention warrants a discussion on the state of the genre, save for possibly Matana Roberts, and other artists whose avant-garde hobnobbing (Roberts was a session musician on Godspeed! You Black Emperor’s 2002 album, Yanqui U.X.O) takes precedence over jazz in popular analysis. The Epic isn’t quite a curio, as Washington has had his hand in quite a few important projects lately. It’s a harbinger for more to come from the circles he runs around in, more so than a wave of genre-defining jazz from an interconnected web of players from all over the world. Hipsters will forget about jazz when they’re introduced to Shangaan electro by the end of the month, failing to stick around long enough to have an in-depth discussion about the genre’s stoic post-1980s façade and intersectionality.
In March, I spoke to world-class jazz vibraphonist Joe Locke, who it’s worth noting has played alongside Dizzy Gillespie in Spider Martin’s band in the 1970s. His work on the Beastie Boys’ 1998 album Hello Nasty came up and he recalled being astounded by their prowess as musicians and knowledge of the musical terrain, instead of the one-dimensional character portraits of Licensed to Ill singles he expected. It’s fitting that it was that album he played on, considering the credits are nerd porn, despite the fact that you probably only know it for “Intergalactic”. It’s the only album that will ever feature Locke, Miho Hatori (Cibo Matto), Lee “Scratch” Perry, and Biz Markie.
Virtually everyone mentioned in this article are avowed music fanatics, nerds if you will. It’s a trait that made my conversation with Locke hurt when it turned to Adam “MCA” Yauch’s death in 2012. People as smart as Adam Yauch are rare. That is more important than the music he made. Those types of people definitely special to the people that begin to comprehend how intelligent they are. Close listening to The Epic yields that Kamasi Washington is a kindred spirit to Yauch. Stephen Ellison is clearly the king of the nerds, but Washington is close behind him. We’re just blessed that they’re working closely together.