The Kamasi Washington Phenomenon

PopMatters' jazz critics didn't include Kamasi Washington's The Epic on their "Best of 2015" list, despite its huge acclaim by mainstream critics. Here's why.
Kamasi Washington
The Epic

When John Garrett and I published our “Best Jazz of 2015” list here at PopMatters, we knew that we were not including the jazz recording that made the year’s biggest splash among folks who were not necessarily jazz fanatics: The Epic by saxophonist Kamasi Washington. We could have commented on this omission in the introduction to our list, but that might have seemed churlish — like a movie critic not putting Star Wars: The Force Awakens on her top-ten and then rubbing in the exclusion in a preface.

So, The Epic was not in my top handful of 2015 releases, and I didn’t review if for PopMatters. But just about every major publication writing about the year’s jazz put Washington in their headline. In fact, PopMatters’ own “The 80 Best Albums of 2015”, ranked The Epic fourth despite it not making our list. A commenter on our list was quick to point out the disc’s absence.

So, let’s talk about that absence. Let me start by saying that I’m a big fan of The Epic, and I’m not here to put it down. My thesis, however, is that, aside from its audacious length (three compact discs of music coming in around three hours!), it’s not a revolutionary or super-innovative record that has turned the jazz world on its head. Rather, it’s a strong and super-interesting record that is mostly in line with today’s superb and wide-ranging, historically aware jazz.

Jazz Sensations Are Made Beyond Jazz

If I’m right that The Epic is a fine but not game-changing jazz album, then why did so many other writers find it so important? PopMatters’ John Paul, in his “Top 80” blurb, wrote that the recording “helped bring a much-needed changing of the proverbial guard in the somewhat staid world of contemporary jazz” and “helps establish the long overdue case for jazz as a vital 21st century art form”.

Well, I don’t mean to pick on my colleague, but that is some historically classic hype talking.

The hype around The Epic is precisely in line with the hype that — rarely but occasionally — attaches to jazz artists or projects. When a jazz artist receives publicity and gets acclaimed in the larger culture, it’s almost always because he has been involved in a high profile recording outside of jazz. When Wynton Marsalis rose to fame in the ’80s, making magazine covers and being touted as some kind of jazz savior, it was not just because he was reviving post bebop jazz with astonishing trumpet technique. Nope. It was because the same year that Wynton Marsalis (his debut on major label Columbia Records) won a jazz Grammy, Marsalis also won a Grammy for classical music. The wunderkind had skills! Herbie Hancock has 14 Grammys and an Oscar, but not one of them preceded his proto-hip hop hit, “Rockit”.

That doesn’t make Marsalis or Hancock (or Esperanza Spalding or Norah Jones) less than excellent. But this is how it works in the US. Jazz musicians get a big boost if they are seen as part of the non-jazz culture. Washington got hype in 2015 because he was a vital part of the year’s biggest and most ambitious non-jazz album: Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which was recently nominated for 11 Grammys. (Washington wrote the string arrangements for To Pimp a Butterfly, and was part of a cadre of great California/Los Angeles jazz players to participate, including trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusere, pianist Robert Glasper, producer Terrace Martin, and bassist Thundercat.)

Aside from the history, why do I believe that it’s the hype that boosted The Epic so high on so many lists? Well, to quote Paul again: “The Epic is a masterful blending of old and new” that is “[e]qually informed by [Washington’s] spiritual jazz predecessors and modern hip-hop”. You see, there is not a trace of hip hop in The Epic.

As much I hate to use a review from Pitchfork to contradict a PopMatters colleague, Seth Colter Walls is dead-on correct in referring to the record as “a hip-hop-free zone” that mainly draws on jazz history that is mostly about 50 years old.

Again, please note that this is not a criticism of The Epic, the marvels of which I will shortly extoll, but it is an explanation of the recording’s hype: which is pretty much unrelated to its content. Another way of putting this: writers who haven’t been paying much attention to the current state of jazz were led to believe that The Epic was some kind of breakthrough, a thrilling new fusing of classic jazz with the music of today. But this is about 95 percent not true.

The truth is:

– Kamasi Washington is terrific.

– But The Epic doesn’t join jazz and hip hop, even though Washington has tons of hip hop experience and might well have worked in that vein.

– And lots of other jazz is doing that in interesting ways and has been for about a decade.

The hype for The Epic, therefore, was both misdirected and kind of great anyway. Hooray! that this wonderful music got a huge audience because Washington has the taste, daring, and ambition to work with great artists like Lamar, who happen to be popular. But Boo! that this phenomenon of misunderstanding and underestimating non-hyped jazz continues unabated.

The Epic Celebrates a Somewhat Forgotten Era of Great Jazz

Speaking to musicians these days, you’ll hear plenty about the common lineage of jazz and hip-hop. Both forms rely on a revolution in rhythmic language, combining voice and rhythm in daring syncopation. The music on The Epic draws almost entirely from the African-American music tradition that precedes hip hop — the jazz that flourished, entertained, and challenged listeners between 1960 and 1980, music largely grounded in the sonic experiments of John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, and electric-era Miles Davis.

The first notes on The Epic are a set of banging chords from pianist Brandon Coleman that sound as much like McCoy Tyner as possible. Tyner, of course, was the pianist in John Coltrane’s early 1960s quartet, and the signal from Washington could not be clearer. Though the tune is called “Change of the Guard”, what’s being referenced is decidedly Old Guard. The string section is teamed up with a vocal choir as well the recording’s three horn front line (Washington’s tenor, Igmar Thomas on trumpet, and trombonist Ryan Porter). The maximalist approach is reminiscent not just of the more ambitious and produced Coltrane records (such as Africa Brass and Ole) but also the immediate offshoots of Trane that blossomed during the later ‘60s and ‘70s in a soulful variant on his driving freedom.

In short, The Epic won’t create much sense of recognition for fans of To Pimp a Butterfly, but it should tickle the same spot that was reached by albums like McCoy Tyner’s Fly With the Wind (1976) and Song of the New World (1973) or Pharaoh Sander’s Karma (1970) and Journey to the One (1980). These projects married the incantatory elements of Coltrane’s melodies to two pop-oriented elements: driving rhythms and more lush production. It would be crude to call it Trane with a Motown sheen, but in the context of ’70s FM radio, it’s simply true that Tyner and Sanders were getting airplay. With The Epic, Washington is following this path quite closely.

“The Rhythm Changes”, which is also on the first disc (subtitled “The Plan”), features lyrics and lead vocal by Patrice Quinn that echo a different post-Trane band of the ’70s: saxophonist Gary Bartz’s Ntu Troop, which put a whole bunch of Stevie Wonder-ish soul into the avant-garde zone (check out the band’s great I’ve Known Rivers and Other Bodies from 1973, which puts some hip-shaking grooves under serious jazz solos and soulful singing). Washington has Graves on a Wurlitzer-sounding electric keyboard here, which comes close to sounding like the Rhodes played by Hubert Eaves on Rivers.

Here’s another tasty ’70s referent that Washington gets to early on The Epic: the most soul-pop band in jazz, The Jazz Crusaders. The mix on much of the disc favors the trombone over Thomas’ trumpet, and so when the horns take the center stage on a tune like “Final Thought”, the dominant combination is tenor/trombone. That earthy sonority, combined with the B3 of Coleman, evokes the best of The Crusaders, a blues-drenched brass attack that isn’t afraid to be funky.

Finally, Washington also delves at times into grooves that would not have been out of place on the early electric records of Davis: Bitches Brew, Jack Johnson, and the like. Again, these were discs from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. “Askim” from the first disc teases us with abstractly funky bass from Miles Mosley and some electric bass courtesy of Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner that becomes something like the searching guitar of John McLaughlin from Bitches Brew.

This blend of references is reproduced with variations on each of the three discs. On the second disc: “Re Run” punches you with Crusader-ish horns; “Seven Prayers” sounds darn-near identical of Miles/Wayne Shorter/Joe Zawinul playing “In a Silent Way”; “Henrietta Our Hero” is an uplifting soul tune for Patrice Quinn over a backbeat; and “Miss Understanding” gets your Pharaoh Sanders on all over again, including a cooking swing that can’t be denied.

So Where’s the Innovation?

Disc Three of The Epic is subtitled “The Historic Repetition”, and that really says it all about Washington’s project. Kamasi Washington is fully versed in hip-hop and how jazz might share/blend with/already be the new music’s innovative heart. But that is not what this project is about.

On the last third of The Epic, Washington is more innovative and more historical at the same time. “Re Run Home” repeats a theme from Part Two but adds funky Clavinet to a groove powered by two drummers at once, plus percussion. The open-ended funk owes a little to today’s jam bands and a whole lot to all of the influences that the rest of the disc is so in love with. Next, Washington radically recasts the Ray Noble super-standard “Cherokee” with a combination of doo-wop introduction, a funky horn-driven rhythm feel that could come from the Meters, and a sunny AM pop radio vibe. It’s a winner that works much like the Fats Waller conversions that Jason Moran dreamed up on his last project.

Washington’s version of French impressionist composer Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” casts the impressionist classic as a greasy 12/8 ballad that winds itself into a frenzy of voices, strings, and expressive piano over time.

“Malcolm’s Theme” nods to hip-hop at least in the sense that it mashes up Ossie Davis’s famous eulogy for Malcolm X, set to Washington’s melody for two voices, with a recording of Malcolm himself speaking over a swirl of acoustic jazz. But the truth of even this cut is that its sensibility sits squarely in Malcolm’s time: the jazz of Coltrane and his disciples, of which we must now count Kamasi Washington. It’s not that the music is not adventurous and rich in power and creativity, but just that it finds its power in harkening back to a specific period between 65 and 45 years ago.

But, Maybe, What’s to Come…

The last track on The Epic is my favorite. “The Message” isn’t all that different from what precedes it. It features of core ten-piece band: the front line of three horns, the two keyboards and two basses (each acoustic and electric), plus twin drummers and hand percussion. The theme is a punching brass blues melody that sits over a throbbing Latin groove in 7/4 time.

In several respects it leans forward and suggests the music is still to come from Washington. Keyboards feed otherworldly squeals into the sound with a certain artful atonality, and Thundercat’s bass solo attacks the song’s structure without traditional jazz phrasing. Washington’s solo here pushes outward like Pharaoh Sanders, no doubt, but it also feels more individual and distinct, less like a recreation and more like a reclaiming for a new purpose. The polyrhythmic blend of drummers, percussion, and the percussive keyboard attacks is not hip-hop — it is most certainly jazz — but it comes at an old jazz virtue with the awareness of how hip-hop sampling and hip-hop rhythmic attack updates that tradition.

Will Washington continue to make music that leans so heavily on a similarity of much older music? I doubt it. His utterly contemporary associations and affiliations certainly suggest rich territory for moving ahead. I suspect that the real masterpiece from Washington is a few years ahead.

In the meantime, I don’t at all dislike The Epic, and I think that it is commendable in how it grounds its creator in his roots even as it feints toward the future. Though Kamasi Washington is already a mature artist, this was his first complete solo recording, and I deeply respect its humility if not its length, which perhaps was excessive. If it wasn’t in my top handful of 2015 releases, these are the reasons why. But also the reasons why may not want to ignore it.

Note to fans of the great David Simon’s Treme: the string section on The Epic includes, quite anonymously, violinist Lucia Micarelli, who played Annie on the HBO series.