First Impressions: Kamasi Washington, “The Epic”

the epicIt’s epic in its scope (three discs, three hours, 17 songs) and in its ballast (double drummers and keyboardists, full choirs and orchestras, horns aplenty) but not really in its feel: Sure, it’s long, but spend some time sinking into a single disc of it, or just putting the thing on shuffle for an hour or so—I suspect these are the methods through which most of us will enjoy it—and it just plays out like a love letter to everything Kamasi Washington digs about jazz. It’s not monolithic, and though it’s got deep roots it’s not really historical: It’s idiosyncratic, a particular slant on jazz from a talented sax player who grew up with soul jazz, likes it when licks stick pretty close to the melody, and absorbed a bit of the black nationalism of hip-hop, but not necessarily much else, his session work with Kendrick Lamar notwithstanding. Everybody is talking about his allegiance to Pharaoh Sanders (which is indisputable) and later-period John Coltrane (which is maybe a little bit misleading, as he never goes nearly as far into outer space as Coltrane did, and that’s fine). What’s implicit in that is that this is a really a highly traditional jazz album—traditional in a late 60s/early 70s sense, not 20s or 30s—and that’s pretty remarkable. Its title aside, The Epic doesn’t unfurl with any grand narrative momentum, but plays out like a series of scenes, each one exhibiting some particular side of Washington’s jazz obsession: “Change of the Guard” opens the whole thing with solo upon solo, choirs and strings, everybody playing their ass off and pushing the whole thing heavenward; you don’t think it will sustain for a full 12 minutes, but it does. “Final Thought” is soul jazz in cliff notes; it’s the only song here that doesn’t hit the 7-minute mark, but it still finds time for a heavy organ prelude and then a percussive Afro-Cuban workout. “The Magnificent 7” does indeed sound like music for a film, but its swirling orchestration and choral effect don’t detract from the heart of the song, which is a nasty, serpentine groove. “Clair de Lune”—a Debussy piece—is lilting and romantic, patient in its unfolding. “Malcolm’s Theme,” a Terrence Blanchard number, eulogizes Malcolm X, but it’s really a song about black pride. The neatest trick here is when Washington—along with guest vocalist Patrice Quinn—updates a standard (“Cherokee”) by making it sound blissed-out and gently funky, but not “contemporary” in any crass sense, though the ones I come back to are the numbers that prove funk can be its own reward: “The Message” and the globetrotting “Re Run Home” are the standouts. But actually: What really impresses me about this album is that, despite its running time and despite no overt concessions to the listeners who got here by way of To Pimp a Butterfly, it’s incredibly tuneful and accessible to any set of ears—those of seasoned jazz fans or total neophytes. All you have to bring to The Epic is a willingness to be swept along in swing—and in that sense, this couldn’t be anything other than gloriously traditional, deeply rooted jazz.

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