Kamasi Washington – The Epic (Album Review)

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One of the best things about Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ was the fact that it was bringing elements of Jazz to a much wider audience. Even if was Jazz that marches to the beat of Hip-Hop more than anything else. One of the many players on that album was Kamasi Washington, who’s been playing and supporting artists such as Flying Lotus for many years now without ever releasing his own material in the form of an album. Now his studio debut has finally come, in the form of a three-hour, three disc album aptly titled ‘The Epic’.

This album is essentially a triple album in that there’s three very distinct albums within ‘The Epic’. For this album Washington brought a 32 piece orchestra including a string section, horn section and a choir to the table; the vision and scope for this project is outstanding alone. Along-side him are the band he’s played with since high school for the most-part, including two drummers, two bass players (including the brilliant Thundercat on electric) as well as two keyboard players, a trombone, a trumpet and occasionally a vocalist. The chemistry between these guys is just outstanding and throughout the course of this project they lay the groundwork for Washington to explore the many different sub-genres of Jazz, pouring in his influence from artists such as John Coltrane and the many different periods of his life in which he experimented.

In the course of the three discs Washington jumps around with different styles of jazz from the Bebop in his thunderous solos that are played so vigorously at points, to Avant-Jazz, to Vocal-Jazz, to the Jazz fusion with funk that finds its way into the third disc on here. This album isn’t made in a way in which you’d have to sit through the gigantic run time in one sitting- each disc can easily be taken on its own as its own album. But if you were to sit through the entire album, each disc acts merely like an act to a stage-show. Each of these discs are a superb place for people who aren’t familiar with Jazz albums to start. Although it may be a lot to take in at first, with repeat listens, Washington is a very accessible musician and a highly optimistic one at that. Washington does the near-impossible in making a three-hour long album thoroughly entertaining the entire way through with his fantastic compositions (13 out of the 17 were composed and produced by him).

The first disc opens with the track ‘Change Of Guard’ which somewhat acts as a taster for the album opening in a way that introduces Washington’s style of playing and the vision he’s going for. It’s a grand vision. The song introduces Washington’s more frantic style of playing and shows how sometimes he’ll blow so hard down his sax that you can hear it cracking. It’s something that plays a key part in the entirety of this album – the power that comes when he plays like this is remarkable. On the first two tracks on the album Washington improvises for so long while the drums get more frantic behind him before breaking back into a more easily digestible melody where the instrumentals then sync up perfectly. The only thing that doesn’t quite match on these first two songs is the way in which they bring in the choral vocals. They sound slightly ill-fitting and unnatural against the improv style instrumentals and it’s the only time out of the entire three discs where it does.

Elsewhere everything slots into place with ease. The percussion used on ‘Final Thought’ is nothing short of outstanding and it’s fantastic that one of the biggest left hooks on this LP comes when the vocals come in (at approximately one or two songs per disc). The vocals on this album are a tad sweet but they do pack a punch once you get over the sweetness. The male and female vocals together on the first disc’s closer ‘Malcolm’s Theme’ are haunting as they sing about Malcolm X. The song features a snippet of Malcolm X talking about religion and his faith in Islam – which seems more relevant today than ever – and when the vocals come in after the clip finishes it feels so daunting yet so appropriate for the end of the first disc. The vocals on the rest of the discs work best when they’re sung alongside the very melodramatic choral vocals like on the track ‘Henrietta Our Hero’.

On the second disc of the album, there’s some of the best music from the entire album. ‘Miss Understanding’ features frantic drums but with some piano, sax and trumpet solos. They really come out all guns blazing on this second disc like there’s nothing to hold back any more. There’s some of the most tense music from the whole album on this disc including some of the most powerful uses of that screeching sax on the track ‘The Magnificent Seven’. It also has some of the most relaxed music from the album such as the track ‘Seven Prayers’ which is the closest Washington gets to creating Modal Jazz on this album. This section of the album feels flawless and every second is perfectly executed. Everything that’s introduced on the first part of the album is expanded, amplified and made more powerful on this second part.

Washington makes the genre hopping feel so cohesive and the final disc of the album is a testament to this. It’s the shortest part from the whole album only containing 4 songs. Yet it has some of the more different music from the album. ‘Re Run Home’ is a rework of the track from earlier in the album ‘Run Home’. It’s six minutes longer than original and features bass work from funk tracks that have been worked in with beauty. There’s also a reworking of Debussy’s ‘Claire De Lune’ which takes the classical masterpiece and makes it so chilling when he uses the choral vocals and a myriad of other subtle instrumentation to give it a spin of his own. Throughout this album the sheer variation of instrumentation on this album never feels overbearing or over stuffed. Washington uses his 32-piece orchestra with such delicacy.

The album’s closer ‘The Message’ may not be the gigantic closer you’d expect but it fits in with the rest of the LP like you’d expect. The best thing about the track is the drum solo towards the end that gives one of the musicians in Jazz that often lacks appreciation the limelight. ‘The Epic’ may have people who’ve followed Jazz for a long time gritting their teeth as people flock to this album off the back of Kendrick Lamar’s album. But this is Jazz in its truest sense. He pours his influence from artists like John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders into a pot and comes out with something special (Alice Coltrane even helped with this album). The way in which he keeps it entertaining for an entire 182 minutes is remarkable. ‘The Epic’ is a fantastic starting point in Jazz for a younger generation and it’s also one of the most forward thinking records of this year.

9/10

Best Tracks: The Message, Seven Prayers, The Magnificent Seven, Claire De Lune, Miss Understanding, the Next Step

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