The Epic by Kamasi Washington – a bold statement from a self-confident author

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Nobody can accuse American composer and jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington of lacking ambition. His debut album, titled The Epic, spans eighteen tracks and roughly three hours of music, running the gamut from heartfelt evocations of jazz legends from the past, to fresh-sounding compositions that incorporate everything from funk to R&B. It is as if the thirty-four-year-old musician –who stated that the record was inspired by a dream – wrote it with a very clear idea of where exactly he wanted it positioned in music history.

In spite of the composer’s declared goal of “bringing jazz to the uninitiated” (or perhaps because of it), The Epic opens with a flagrant throwback, as Washington channels the spirit of John Coltrane in the playfully titled “Change of the Guard”. There are no intros or ECM-like warm-up tunes on this record. Washington starts off strong with a catchy piano, crisp drums, a powerful sax and the addition of a choir for added sentiment. From the start, it’s clear that this is a supremely extroverted work that also manages to be cautious and contemplative.

Only a minute into the record the listeners are already treated to an excellent piano solo by Cameron Graves – an early highlight. It becomes rapidly clear that The Epic was composed with grandeur in mind – a very bold statement from a self-confident author.

Normally in The Music and Myth I try to look at every track and analyze its narrative construction, but the sheer volume of music on this record would make that time-consuming and ultimately boring to the reader, so I’ll stick to a broader thematic overview.

The soundscape is immensely varied, an atlas of the classical and modern jazz world with stunning attention to detail and a plethora of information, though ultimately lacking in true novelty. The last statement is not really a criticism. The Epic isn’t about shaping the future of jazz with a cutting edge sound, but rather encompassing the essence of its past and present. Those who were led here by Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, on which Washington was featured, are in for a big surprise. Hopefully, they’ll stick around and discover the depths of this multi-layered work.

The lengthy tracks – many of which are over the 10-minute mark – give the listener ample time to get truly immersed in the composer’s vision. The record also benefits from a seamless progression from one track to the next, which helps the narrative dynamic (best exemplified by the tidal transition from “Isabelle” to “Final Thought”). The latter also contains a fantastic performance by Washington, whose talent as a composer has, so far, overshadowed his actual playing. A high-octane delivery by Washington over Leon Mobley’s frenzied percussions makes the “shorter” (only six minutes long) “Final Thought” one of the record’s highlights.

On “Askim”, look for an entertaining electric bass solo from Thundercat, who generally delivers in spades on this monumental record, as he is wont to do. “Askim” is also a great example of the dramatic effect achieved by the choir, especially coupled with Washington’s and Ronald Bruner Jr’s intense sax and drums (respectively) towards the end of the song.

My favorite track from the first disc – Volume One: The Plan – has to be “The Rhythm Changes”, for the simplicity of its message and the fact that it is something rare in today’s quality music scene: a genuinely uplifting tune. I really enjoyed Patrice Quinn’s even vocals. Some reviewers have commented on a perceived ‘lack of passion’ from the vocalist but I thought her timing and energy matched the spirit of the song and any other approach would have been dissonant.

Volume Two: A Glorious Tale, starts with the climactic “Miss Understanding” spearheaded by Miles Mosely’s acoustic bass. The highlights are “Leroy and Lanisha” for its hip, downtown retro-vibe and funky rhythm,  “Seven Prayers” for its Miles Davis-charm and the closer, “The Magnificent 7” for it’s awesome tension on piano. Meanwhile, the second volume’s sole vocal track “Henrietta our Hero”, again with Patrice Quinn on vocals, sounds like it translates best to a live rendition. On the recording it falls just short of achieving the poignancy it seems to try to convey.

Volume 3: The Historic Repetition starts off in a different way, with an old school funk-feel and hypnotic horns via “Re Run Home” and includes some interesting covers of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” and Ray Noble’s “Cherokee”. I also enjoyed the beautiful Patrice Quinn/ Dwight Trible duet on the tender tribute to Malcolm X, “Malcolm’s Theme”, easily the best of the vocal tracks. Trible’s voice is exceptionally evocative, making it a great fit for this respectful tribute.

Though it feels like the least cohesive of the trio, Volume Three ends on a high note with “The Message”, one of the best tracks for its remarkable energy. All in all, The Epic is a beautifully unconstrained record that never becomes tiresome, in spite of its length.

Even on the very first listen, I was certain that this album would be a shoo-in for a 2016 Grammy nomination. I should have known better! Once again, the NARAS proves it has its head up its ass, overlooking this splendid work much like it did Patricia Barber’s Smash in 2013, easily one of the best records of the past ten years in any genre.

Well, fear not! Even though I’ve had to put The Music and Myth on hiatus for a few months due to working on my novels, the third annual Music and Myth Awards are still scheduled for January 2016 and Kamasi Washington’s The Epic is a deserving frontrunner.