It’s hard to know where to start with "The Epic" (Brainfeeder), the crazily ambitious new three-disc album by Los Angeles saxophonist, producer and arranger Kamasi Washington.
The album arrived with an unusually loud buzz a few weeks ago. Publications that rarely pay much attention to jazz have hailed Washington as a jazz savior who seeks, and I’m quoting the press release, “to remove jazz from the shelf of relics and make it new, unexpected, and dangerous again.”
Maybe. But "The Epic" isn’t so much dangerous and new as strange, grandiose and bewildering. It’s part manifesto, part cinematic funhouse, and one hot mess. And did I mention that it’s a whole lot of fun?
The first track, “Change of the Guard,” sets the scene, opening with a surge of energy, until the strings and soaring wordless vocals float by and bring to mind an outtake from the original “Star Trek” theme.
An L.A. native, Washington graduated from the respected Academy of Music at Hamilton High and studied ethnomusicology at UCLA. Embraced by the greatest elder statesmen of the Southland jazz scene, including Kenny Burrell and the late Gerald Wilson, he was also immersed in the world of hip-hop and R&B, touring with Snoop Dogg and Raphael Saadiq.
More recently, Washington and many of his bandmates collaborated with Kendrick Lamar on his critically hailed hit, "To Pimp A Butterfly." Some tracks on "The Epic" feel like an addendum to that project.
When Washington serves as his own lyricist, I’m not at all sure that the songs stand up to repeated listening. “The Rhythm Changes,” for instance, doesn’t give vocalist Patrice Quinn much to do, particularly when she’s joined by the choir and string section.
Almost half of the album's 17 tracks clock in at well over 10 minutes, and end up wearing out their welcome. But when Washington steps forward as a soloist, he can make a trenchant statement without wasting a note. And he keeps some impressive company.
His 10-piece band, "The Next Step," features a core of longtime collaborators such as brothers Ronald Bruner Jr. on drums and Stephen Bruner (aka Thundercat) on six-string bass, percussionist Leon Mobley, keyboardist Brandon Coleman and pianist Cameron Graves.
My favorite pieces tend to be the tunes featuring Washington’s core band, like the atmospheric ballad “Isabelle,” which sounds like an early tune by the pioneering fusion band "Weather Report."
So is Washington looking backward or forward? Or is he messing with us, like on his loopy arrangement of “Cherokee?" It’s a tune famously treated as a furious sprint by beboppers, but in Washington’s hands it’s an easy grooving stroll, a la Hugh Masekela’s “Grazing In the Grass.”
Los Angeles is no stranger to jazz manifestos. Most importantly, avant-garde patriarch Ornette Coleman and his great L.A. quartet delivered the epochal 1959-60 free jazz statements, "The Shape of Jazz to Come" and "Change of the Century," albums that introduced new approaches to rhythm and form.
Washington has created his own mythic realm, but his busy production is often a case of more is less. He closes the album with “The Message,” which left me pondering: What exactly is he trying to say?
My takeaway is that Kamasi Washington is willing to try just about anything. It may not work. It may even be ridiculous, but it’s not going to be boring. For a project as sweeping and, well, epic as "The Epic," that’s an impressive achievement in itself.
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