Written by Jesse Silbert
Kamasi Washington is a saxophonist on Brainfeeder Records, who composes, produces, and plays jazz. At first glance, Washington may seem out of place among the other musicians on Brainfeeder, who, if we are casting a wide net with respect to genre, are almost exclusively hip-hop or electronic artists. However, he fits in with the group better than one might think. Brainfeeder was founded by Stephen Ellison (ie Flying Lotus), the grand-nephew of legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane and jazz pianist Alice Coltrane. The way in which Ellison, and the artists signed onto his label, conceives of electronic music is aligned with that jazz tradition; Brainfeeder's music contains tension and release, thematic and momentary misdirection, constant violation of musical expectations, odd time signatures, rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic complexity, improvisation, or a general headiness absent in most electronic dance music. Thus, Washington, as someone who has recently lent his talents to Flying Lotus’s most recent full-length You’re Dead! and Kendrick Lamar’s most recent project To Pimp a Butterfly, fits right in with the Brainfeeder crew; The Epic is a progression of, rather than a departure from, the trajectory of the label's discography.
The Epic is aptly titled; seventeen songs make up the triple album, clocking in at just under three hours of music, and those seventeen songs were themselves chosen from around two hundred that were recorded. The album was created with a ten-piece core band of some of LA’s best up-and-coming jazz musicians, as well as a thirty-two-piece orchestra and a twenty-member choir. The album spans a wide range of different jazz sub-genres, from fusion and post-bop to vocal standards or more contemporary, genre-defying styles of jazz, all of them containing a mix of composition and improvisation. Although there are so many players on this album, the arrangements dexterously manage large swathes of textures, and Washington’s horn shines through with his Coltrane-esque solo runs, his funk-influenced riffs, and his hyper-emotive over-blowing that frequently had me on the verge of tears.
There is too much musical content to explore on this record to try and carefully review all of it track by track, or even to nail down some musical content-based thesis, so instead the largest cohesive factor for the album becomes its direction and its spirit. Undoubtedly some will call The Epic the revival of jazz. However, it is difficult to label anything as the revival of a genre, mainly because it is hard to identify the exact impact an album has, or because “revival” is difficult to define. Some might even question if jazz is in need of a revival since it is already so alive and well: for fans of contemporary jazz, people like Hiromi Uehara, Vijay Iyer, and Eldar Djangirov are proof that the genre is thriving and evolving. Moreover, bands like BADBADNOTGOOD are proving that jazz is interesting younger audiences.
So what is The Epic’s place in the current state of jazz? Its place is a calling to the spirit of jazz, as life-affirming music, as emotional, exploratory, and energetic art. All over the album, Washington and his band explore stories, emotions, and ideas with so much energy that is at times overwhelming. Harsh critics of jazz who call it an old and campy genre would be hard-pressed to say the same about this vibrant and colorful piece of work. Washington doesn’t break any barriers, but what he does is place a mammoth seventeen-track long, almost three-hour footprint on the face of contemporary jazz, one that definitely will excite jazz’s current audience and hopefully attract a newer audience with its immense vitality.
The Epic personnel:
Kamasi Washinton - Tenor Saxophone
Ryan Porter - Trombone
Igmar Thomas - Trumpet
Cameron Graves - Piano
Brandon Coleman - Keyboards
Miles Mosley - Acoustic Bass
Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner - Electric Bass
Tony Austin - Drums (Right Side)
Ronald Bruner Jr. - Drums (Left Side)
Leon Mobley - Percussion