Undoubtedly set to become one of the most talked about releases of the year, “The Epic” is 3 cd’s, 3 hours long and features 10 piece band, 20 person choir and 32 piece orchestra. Released on LA based label Brainfeeder, 34-year-old saxophonist/composer Kamasi Washington and his closely-knit group of musicians have recorded a multi dimensional jazz album of audacious intent. In the few years preceding this ambitious project, Washington had cut his teeth touring with Snoop Dogg, Raphael Sadiq and Chaka Khan. His credentials began to rise as Washington went on to record as sideman with Brainfeeder co-founder/producer Flying Lotus and fellow Southern Californian Kendrick Lamar. It is fair to say though, that nothing could have prepared us for the sheer scope and content of this recording. Given Washington’s hip-hop pedigree, it could be seen in some quarters a surprise that this is a jazz album of real substance. Yes there are fusions in there, and let’s face it, if an album lasting 3 hours hasn’t got variation it would make for a long haul of a listen, but underneath the soul/funk/hip-hop and gospel influences, this is a recording most firmly rooted in the jazz tradition. It was 2011 when Washington went into the studio with a group of long-time friends/musicians with the goal of recording as much music as possible over the period of a month. Washington has commented that this triple album set is the result of having recorded 190 tunes, including 45 original compositions. From there he edited it down to a mere 17 tracks and “The Epic” was born. “Trying to reduce it to an album took me a while.” comments Washington. “I felt like all 17 of those songs, there was nothing I wanted to change about any of those. And it was weird, I started having these dreams and the album was playing out through the dream. And I came to this conclusion – these were supposed to be together, this was it.”
3 hours is a lot of music, by anyone’s standards. Perhaps not surprisingly, nothing is rushed here. Many of the tracks clock in at between 10 and 15 minutes and throughout the entirety of the 3 disc set, much time, freedom and space is generously given to the soloists performing. Generally speaking the lead roles, in addition to Washington himself, are given out to trumpeter Igmar Thomas and trombonist Ryan Porter. The three horn players work very well together and whilst the album benefits from a deep unity, it is the band leader’s soloing that stands out time and time again. Washington seems able to turn his hand to any given situation, whether that be a 5 minute long Coltrane-esque journey of discovery, a rapid-fire Brecker-like improv, or a catchy hook-laden break with melodic virtuosity. The heartbeat of the band is exceptional, with Thundercat and Miles Mosley on electric and acoustic bass, Ronald Bruner Jr and Tony Austin supplying the drums, alongside percussionist Leon Mobley, Cameron Graves on piano and Brendan Coleman keys. There are also 3 songs featuring the lead vocals of Patrice Quinn and a walk on part from the quiet legend, Dwight Trible.
Having listened in-depth to this enterprising release I would have this to say: “The Epic” may be 3 hours in length but a summary of the whole can effectively be made by reflecting on the album’s opening track “Change of The Guard”. From the opening bars it is clear that what we are listening to could be described as Washington’s homage to the greats; John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Eric Dolphy, Sonny Rollins; written and performed for a 21st Century audience and fearless in its execution. The power hits you hard between the ears and as the tune develops, utilising full orchestra and large vocal choir, it has a wow factor that surprisingly stays with the listener despite its lengthy running time. The band has a killer core to it that nails the tune perfectly and for the most part, the orchestrations are well worked and the choir adds an obvious gospel hue to the palette of brightly shining colours. For me, there are times when the voices are over-worked, superfluous even, but one can’t fault the endeavour. There is something else that struck me immediately and although this may sound somewhat pedantic, I have found this to temper my enjoyment of the music. The production, the sound itself, doesn’t work as it should do for me. This may be a personal thing, but it all sounds over compressed; just “not quite right on the ears”. Whether this is due to the sound engineering or if it’s in the mix, I’m not so sure. More likely in my opinion it is down to the production techniques employed. It could be a Flying Lotus thing… maybe that’s his sound derived from a background of hip-hop and clever yet sometimes over-produced recording, but whatever the reason it doesn’t work that well for me and it does have a negative effect on my overall experience. That said, I can counter my own argument here as there are tracks where the production works brilliantly, this being on a couple of stand-out tunes later on in the session, which I’ll come to in due course. There is enough variation in the opener, from its searing melody through to a deft lightness of touch and onto a soaring, uplifting crescendo of sound, for it to be enjoyed many times over whilst still trying to take it all in. And this is just one tune of many. To try to convey a feel for the sheer scope of the music at hand, I’ll pick out a few of my favourite tracks to talk about here. I spoke earlier of the tunes where I felt the production clearly worked well. These are “Re Run Home” and “The Message”. “Re Run Home” could be a classic 70’s Mizell Brothers production, echoing the deep soul/funk grooves they helped create with legendary trumpeter Donald Byrd. Complete with wah wah sounds and incessant driving rhythm, this is a killer of a track I can come back to time and time again. “The Message” feels more organic, its beautiful strings and choir opening leading into a rich, warm, percussion and double bass led groove punctuated throughout with some wonderful horn solos. The 3 tunes featuring the soaring vocals of Patrice Quinn are all very enjoyable and if the length was cut down (losing some of the solos – but not Washington’s which brings joy each time I hear it), I could see “The Rhythm Changes” becoming a platinum selling single if they chose to release it. The album’s penultimate track “Malcolm’s Theme” pulls no punches with its eulogy for Malcolm X sung through a melodic vocal line, leading up to what is in effect a plea for understanding and compassion drawn from a speech given by the civil rights leader in 1965. In surprising contrast, there is the smooth, glowingly sumptuous “Clair de Lune”. It is perhaps easy to dismiss this track amongst some of the other hard blowing high energy music on the album, but for me it delivers that sexy, sultry feel in the same way that someone like Prince does when he decides to do so. The soul-organ grinds like the sexiest Hammond on earth! One more tune to mention or we’ll be here all day… “Askim” showcases Washington at his most intense and powerful. And I hereby declare full rights to the non patented idiom “The Washington Wail”. You will come to hear this grunge-like growl repeatedly throughout the recording and it is undoubtedly a sound to be reckoned with, and one which will make Washington instantly recognisable.
“The Epic” clearly is what it says on the tin. For me, it’s certainly not faultless and some parts work far better than others. But it is nonetheless an incredible achievement. It remains to be seen as to whether it sells well and assists in building a bridge between the jazz community and the more casual mainstream listener. Whatever the outcome, this is a self-assured and undeniably brave release that will probably divide opinion and bring people together in equal measure.