Kamasi Washington: The Epic

Double album sets are rare; triples are almost unheard of. Is Kamasi Washington's three-CD set The Epic an act of hubris, the untamed outpouring of an outsized ego? Such ambitious releases carry with them a whiff of revolutionary fervour, the kind of gesture one associates with someone intent on overthrowing tradition. In keeping with The Epic's grandiose conception and aspirational reach, Washington and company honour the jazz tradition whilst also wishing to revitalize it through the sheer force of their expression. It's no accident that the seventeen-track collection opens with “Change of the Guard.”

And powerful it most definitely is, considering that its three-volume, 172-minute presentation features a ten-piece ensemble supplemented by a thirty-two-piece orchestra and twenty-person choir. The band itself is a fiery collective that rounds out the LA-based Washington on tenor sax, keyboardist Brandon Coleman, pianist Cameron Graves, trombonist Ryan Porter, trumpeter Igmar Thomas, percussionist Leon Mobley, and singer Patrice Quinn with bassists Thundercat (Stephen Bruner) on electric and Miles Mosley on acoustic and drummers Ronald Bruner Jr. and Tony Austin. In truth, the tracks, with their arrangements already so stacked, hardly need further beefing up with orchestral strings and choir, and such a move also threatens to give the project a bombastic feel. Still, it's hard not to be won over by Washington when his enthusiasm translates into music of such ambition.

An occasional synthesizer surfaces and electric piano, electric guitar, and electric bass, too, but in style and spirit The Epic is acoustic jazz of the incendiary kind associated with Coltrane and Mingus. A few tracks, the pastoral dirge “Seven Prayers” among them, do flirt with the kind of free-floating style of In A Silent Way and Live-Evil (early Weather Report, as well) that evolved into fusion, but The Epic is most assuredly not fusion.

Setting the tone, “Change of The Guard” bolts from the gate with the band in overdrive, its aggressive attack augmented by lush strings and the choir's wordless vocals. Solos are plentiful throughout (democratically distributed, too), but they're a secondary focus to the album's compositions and arrangements. Non-soloing musicians don't stand idly by as a band member solos; instead, Washington's arrangements give the non-soloists material to play during the spotlights, much as Ellington and Mingus did on their own large-band projects. Washington's a lucky man, too, for having such a wildly tight crew on hand to bring his long-form compositions into being. Alternately known as The Next Step or The West Coast Get Down, the band's playing is stellar throughout, with the drummers and bassists lending an always muscular thrust to the soloists (note, for example, the agility with which Thundercat and Mosley stoke the 7/8 groove in “The Magnificent 7”).

There are moments, such as during “Miss Understanding,” where Washington's saxophone wail invites comparison to Coltrane's (more with respect to intensity than similarity of style), but not everything burns with barely contained fervour, and Washington and company confidently tackle Latin-jazz, R&B, and blues in addition to jazz. Awash in organ shimmer, “Isabelle” exudes a late-night quality in the sultry splendour of its slow tempo and hushed phrases, while “The Next Step” is so blues-drenched, it knocks on gospel's door, too. Elsewhere, Quinn's appealing vocal turns bolster the uplifting swing of “The Rhythm Changes” and the impassioned blues-ballad “Henrietta Our Hero.”

Some of the track titles in the third volume, “The Historic Repetition,” reference figures of great influence, among them Charlie Parker, Debussy, and Malcolm X, without necessarily hewing to the styles one might expect to hear presented. The vocal-based lounge swing of “Cherokee,” for instance, inhabits a different universe altogether from Parker's be-bop. The “Clair De Lune” cover, on the other hand, sticks close to the original's melodies, whilst recasting it as a warm jazz-blues ballad, and the album's penultimate setting, “Malcolm's Theme,” sees Quinn and Dwight Trible rendering Ossie Davis's eulogy for Malcolm X into vocal form.

Four years in the making, The Epic is the kind of ambitious set a label such as Impulse! might have released in the ‘60s but is rarely encountered today. Give credit, then, to Brainfeeder founder Flying Lotus (Steven Ellison), who previously featured the musician on Cosmogramma and You're Dead!, for giving Washington's magnum opus a home (as is well-known, Ellison comes by his jazz connection honestly, as his great-aunt was Alice Coltrane and his cousin is jazz saxophonist Ravi). A few questionable moments aside (e.g., “Cherokee”), it's a remarkable accomplishment, and that Washington has managed to produce something so far-reaching at the relatively young age of thirty-four only makes it all the more impressive.

July-August 2015