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The Shape of Jazz's Past to Come: Kamasi Washington's The Epic

What’s there to say about Kamasi Washington that can’t be expressed in a few short words? He’s an expansive composer, and a meticulous one. In his arrangements, he matches power with restraint—which is to say, he’s patient. On record, his saxophone glides along with a mellow grace and a sharp ear for hooks. On stage, he’s affable, charismatic (though soft-spoken), exuding a sensuality checked by vague intimations of the spiritual. But above all, Kamasi Washington is confident.

This confidence is affectless and infectious. It stems largely from the decade or so he has spent as a bandleader in the Los Angeles jazz scene, but no doubt from his dozens of sessions as sideman for the likes of Ryan Adams, Robin Thicke, and Snoop Dogg as well. Paradoxical though it may sound, Washington has cultivated a will to immediacy on The Epic, his three-LP, three-hour debut, to match those of his erstwhile collaborators.

It’s a focus on audience gratification that one doesn’t commonly associate with jazz, and the pleasures that result are not unlike those of an extremely well produced Hollywood film. The Epic is bombastic and broad, bracing yet deeply familiar. Far from difficult, Washington’s compositions are highly approachable, even ensnaring—not despite their length, but in large part because of it. The variation and stamina of his drummers, Ronald Brunner Jr. and Tony Austin, bear this out on nearly every track. It’s their tenacity and invention that keep the music mobile, and restore the plot when it wanders (as it often can). Whether it’s a flare for novelty or pure danceability, this is not a band that’s shy about the beat. Washington’s solos work up against these rhythms, building intuitively into higher and more raucous spheres. It’s a gratifying if predictable pattern, deployed with variations throughout The Epic’s prodigious bulk.

I began with a question about what there was, really, to say about Washington. A look at the critics’ coverage of The Epic when it was released in May reveals a reluctance to say much, at least in a direct way. There is the requisite spot-the-influence game, the reaching abstractions, but there’s also a pervasive satisfaction with an album whose signifiers are offered so lovingly and (most importantly) safely, ripe for their own studied plucking.

This last part is only natural. Because of his pedigree—collaborations with friends Flying Lotus’s Steven Ellison and Kendrick Lamar that still overshadow his solo work—as much as his undeniable talent, Washington’s profile is higher at the moment than just about any figure in jazz. In releasing an album as ambitious, as gaudy, and as populist as The Epic, his timing was just about perfect. As much was evident the night of his packed CMJ set at Le Poisson Rouge in October, a preview for the upcoming Winter Jazzfest. Adorned in a spheroid beanie and priestly robes with solar gold lining, Washington looked every bit the acolyte of Sun Ra, although the atmosphere was more professional than prophetic. In person, the band’s dynamic is as precisely choreographed as it is in the studio. Only vocalist Patrice Quinn seems to figure as the force of jubilant chaos whose aesthetic they so openly court.

Without question, Washington’s solo set in January will be a major event, as much for jazz faithful as for those following the hype. Does Kamasi Washington’s arrival on the scene mark a turning point for mainstream culture’s downright cold reception of contemporary jazz? The answer is a resounding ‘probably not.’ The palates of receptive listeners of hip-hop and electronica will expand; many will use the album as a gateway to record store scavenger hunts, jazz clubs, and the corners of the Internet where Washington’s antecedents are given their due reverence. But as it stands, his cache is as an extension of the Brainfeeder collective (Ellison’s imprint and distributor of The Epic) rather than of any coherent jazz discourse.

Maybe this is what encapsulates my sense of Washington’s contribution and, at the same time, my fatigue in mulling it over. To listen to The Epic is not to be filled with feelings of a bright (if unwritten) future for a living art form; instead, one hears a skillful, even exhaustive renovation of older, rougher, exceedingly well-worn approaches from fusion to modal jazz. With The Epic, Washington has made jazz’s most focal contribution to the broader phenomenon of nostalgia culture.

This is a different strain of the same nostalgia for a genre’s peak creative period that we see in rock music in 2015. Expanding outward, it resonates with 'zombie formalism', the term popularized by art critic Jerry Saltz to describe a phenomenon in contemporary painting. Jazz is nowhere near as inundated with studious recapitulation, but The Epic’s warm reception feels like a (largely benign) symptom of a general hunger for the reassurances of a cultural past remembered both fondly and dimly—an indication as well of a burnout from the relentless futurism of truly forward-thinking contemporary music.

The ahistorical plasticity of Kanye West or Aphex Twin has created a gradient among the new generation for ready attachment to the past. For Lamar, it’s the g-funk era of West Coast hip hop; for Ellison, it’s his Aunt Alice as well as Herbie Hancock. For Washington, it’s Ra, and another former session collaborator, George Duke, the fusion artist most famous for his work with Frank Zappa, another former session collaborator.

Every artist interprets the continuum in which they flow. The particular interpretation Washington seems to have chosen, however, is the one of least resistance. Consider the alternative: Tyondai Braxton, whose HIVE1 is as expansive as it is claustrophobic, as conversant with Steve Reich as it is with Daniel Lopatin, as utterly lifeless in performance as it is eerily lifelike on headphones. The son of jazz-cubist visionary Anthony Braxton, Tyondai forsook a career with Battles—critical favorites and emissaries of another defunct avant-garde permutation, prog—to probe a form of music that speaks more honestly to the spirit of Ayler or Ra or even Coltrane than anything on The Epic.

None of this is to discount Washington’s achievements, which are formidable, and eminently joyous in and of themselves. Instead, it is to acknowledge that in 2015, a work of jazz, like a work of politics, cries out for follow-through. Kamasi Washington is in a rare position, possessing the talent, the momentum, and the attention necessary to create a new space for his art form—to elevate others as he was elevated, to probe his limitations like those before him, to reassert the primacy of this musical tradition. He just might do it too; he has expert timing.


Ryan Meehan

RYAN MEEHAN is a writer based in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2015

All Issues