Album Review: Kamasi Washington - 'The Epic'

Empty Lighthouse is a reader-supported site. This article may contain affiliate links to Amazon and other sites. We earn a commission on purchases made through these links.

Kamasi Washington delivers a nearly 3-hour passionate and joyous tour-de-force record exploring the history of black jazz.

I'll cop to it: It's impossible to talk directly about this album in a standard way. This is not a weakness of the album; far from it. It is, if anything, a sign that the album lives up to its name.

It possesses a kind of metaphysical mass that is substantially greater than a typical record; it gestures at, draws from, references, and is contextualized by so many things that it becomes almost impossible to leap straight in to talking about the sounds on the record and have it make sense.

And that's not even touching the near-3 hour runtime of the record. It requires alternative methods.

First is the state of jazz. It is easy to refer to this as a comeback record for jazz as a genre.

It's easy to create a narrative of the reemergence of jazz through D'Angelo and Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar, culminating in this sprawling record, a tour-de-force by a band member of the group backing Lamar's recent (rightfully) critically-lauded record.

However, this is not entirely accurate. It's true that these records have increased the profile of jazz in the popular eye, but jazz has never truly died.

This is partly because jazz is a spirit as much as a modality or a genre.

Like the broader umbrellas of "metal" or "punk" or "rock" or "hip-hop", it refers more to the spirit with which material is approached than the instrument set or technical components of the music.

All music is syncretic; it is the nature of any created thing to be a combination of components and ideas that precede it, an idea that sounds pretentious on paper only because using words to describe something so intuitive feels inherently somewhat masturbatory for a writer.

Jazz, however, was the first music to stake its identity purely in the act of synthesis.

Unlike various forms of classical or folk music that preceded it, which pegged their identities in instruments or compositional ideas or rules or notational forms, jazz was built through a kind of disciplined indiscipline, a wild and free-form combination of ideas both improvised and composed, both high-brow and low-brow, both of the salt of the earth and the aethers of heaven and the mind.

It becomes difficult not to rhapsodize about the abstract spirit of jazz. It's very easy to find jazz-mystics, those who seem perennially doped up to the eyeballs on nothing but music, who speak in poetry and riff on words and thoughts in rambling improvisational streams like their favorite players because, like the music they love, the spirit has overtaken them.

(And, in certain real ways, we can blame jazz for the evils of jam bands and bad white reggae.

But nothing is without fault in this world.) This is due to the nature of jazz being a mode, a method, rather than a specific definable set of techniques or instruments that define many other genres.

There are, of course, subgenres of jazz that have specific palettes of techniques and instruments and compositional styles, but the reason jazz was able to generate so many subgenres so quickly, incorporate so many different genres into itself (from country to blues to gospel to classical to folk to rock to dance music), to penetrating and influencing other disparate genres, is precisely because it is a mode of doing things, of Playing as opposed to Defining.

It is this aspect that propels it to change shape over time.

However, like other genres based in Play, Experimentation, and Progress, jazz eventually became a repeatable sound. The same happened, in time, with progressive rock and experimental rock and avant-garde musics of varying stripes.

Experiments were made, works were canonized, methods and sounds and techniques and forms were canonized through these works, and soon genre barriers emerged.

But this is a slipperiness of language; jazz the genre is not necessarily jazz the spirit, or jazz the act.

Our idea of jazz being dead or needing resurrection (it was going to come back around!) is predicated on the idea of jazz being a sound or a genre format and that format needing a breathe of fresh air. And so when albums like this one enter public consciousness the way this has, or the jazzy textures that preceded it such as in Kendrick's record or D'Angelo's record, we envision jazz as being reborn.

This is not so; we are simply paying attention again. Jazz artists, both of genre form and a more spiritual aspect, have not stopped working and pressing on the edges of the genre.

Not even classicism can kill experimental genres. It can misrepresent them, certainly, portraying them to people as a certain way you play your saxophone or trumpet.

But the inherently forward-thinking nature of these spirits will wave their hands at mere classicist works regardless of their popularity and venture forth to new terrain unhindered no matter what.

You don't ever need to fear for the health of experimental music. Jazz included.

Which is, of course, a thorough way to debunk the idea that this album is merely rejuvenating jazz. Which, in turn, is still not talking about the album.

The second common thing people bring up when talking about this record is Washington's relationship to Kendrick and Flying Lotus.

This is understandable; there are common threads through all three records, such as the presence of the young bass virtuoso Thundercat, and between pairs, like how Washington is signed to Flying Lotus' record label Brainfeeder and how he also was a player in the band backing Lamar on his recent record.

There is a sense of shared motion, of building off of the works and progress and visibility of one another.

But this seems overly crass, even if potentially true. This is precisely because it is predicated on the notion that this record is somehow capitalizing in some clearly commercial way on the zeitgeist and critical aura it associates itself with. But this idea falls apart when one remembers that we are still talking about a nearly 3-hour, 3-disc long, largely instrumental jazz record.

There is no clear way to make this a commercial project in 2015.

These components are gestured to, or at least not hidden, by press releases regarding the record. But it's not enough to compel someone to listen to 3 hours of jazz.

Furthermore, it decenters the album from itself.

The discussion no longer focuses on this record, these songs, these solos, the larger structures and architectures effected within it, but instead shift to how they relate to this larger meta-project comprised of FlyLo, Kendrick and occasionally D'Angelo as well.

And while this is not entirely unwarranted, it does wind up eliding this record for those more notable (or at least more popular) releases.

It also undermines the history of Washington; though he is quite young for the jazz game, being only in his early 30s, he's been playing a cutting records for about ten years, including several turns as band leader already.

This is not really the debut record of a long-time backing player and associate of big names and touring sax player of long-standing classic performers.

These are an aspect of his CV, it's true, and noteworthy accomplishments, but Washington has a history in the contemporary jazz world of his own merit that more properly informs this record.

None of which yet scratches these songs.

Having dispelled these two common aspects of metaphysical mass, we find ourselves much closer to the album proper.

However, having dispelled these two notions, that this record is a jazz savior or that the associations surrounding the record affect the songs themselves, we find a slightly less overwhelming great record than a lot seem to be writing about.

This is no knock on the record, mind you. The compositions on this record are tight, lush, propulsive, and lively.

The solos skew away from the technically gobsmacking toward things that are more interested in containing and communicating energy.

This works out well; three hours of technical fireworks is a substantially more difficult thing to make compelling, and this record is, against popular reason, deeply compelling despite its length.

The energy between the songs is not perfectly maintained, mind you, and the vocal tracks especially feel like cooldowns that don't quite work where they are placed, but for a 3-hour long record to have 17 tracks and none of them be bad is either a miracle or a sign of remarkable craftsmanship, and so these faults add up to only minor ones.

Without the outside contexts, the strengths of this record betray its only real substantial weakness. To be direct: We have heard these moves before.

This is obviously the sound of a group at play, feeling freer and less contained than a lot of what passes as pop jazz records, and draws more clearly from the rangy and fun workouts of John Coltrane and Miles Davis and even the more dense orchestration of Sun-Ra.

But this is precisely the problem; all of these clearly feel in the style of someone else, from an earlier time.

They are new compositions, which is laudable, but they don't push terribly hard against convention either, which diminishes the sense of them being as truly astoundingly great as they get painted.

This issue does not sink the album; not by a long shot. This is largely due to the passion of the performances, which feel less like they are acting out memorized roles and more like they are playing from the heart.

It's an almost unquantifiable thing, that subtle touch that shifts a smooth sax line from sleek muzak noise to something more soulful.

But it's not entirely undefinable; what we colloquially call "feel" or "soul" is really a number of subtle touches, like syncopation, dynamics, embellishment, sense of breath, mild unexpected shifts of a melodic line that make it feel more felt than composed, ghost notes, and on and on and on.

While these can be viewed as learnable and repeatable techniques, they can also be looked at as the language academia uses to approach and understand what might otherwise be viewed as naive mistakes.

This is an important notion in jazz; its roots ultimately tie it to folk music more than academic work, as academic as it became.

And like all great folk work, it has always been at least partially about leaning into what might be viewed as mistakes and synthesizing them more, not less, so that they become something that flows freely and deliberately from its players.

It's this sense of being more playful with melodic and rhythmic choice, an openness of form as opposed to a tight closedness, that marks the Play of jazz.

You can replicate written rhythms and notes and cycle through them the same way over and over with enough practice; these kinds and amounts of subtle changes of voice and dynamic and intensity and rhythm are the sign that a real human not only played these notes but played with them, bent them to how they felt they should be played in the moment as opposed to perfectly replicating what was written.

These songs possess a great deal of this kind of Play. It is precisely this kind of real passion and Play that rejuvenates and makes relevant any older style of music.

It is what differentiates the cynical retroist and classicist (the latter for more "sophisticated" genres and the former for the more "vulgar") versus the sincere player, a term we must look at for its acknowledgement of play as much as the more widely-understood functional definition.

In other words, it is what differentiates the nostalgic gimmick from the earnest contribution.

So, ultimately, the fact that we have heard these ideas elsewhere in other configurations does not significantly deflate the record. It is hard to hold it in precisely the same estimation as something like Flying Lotus' recent record, which was a substantially more modern record than this one, but its lack of phantastical modernity does not diminish its accomplishment of making almost 3-hours of a kaleidoscope of traditions of jazz deeply compelling.

Oh, and did I mention that it's easily relistenable? Because it's that, too.

The idea of making 3 discs worth of jazz not only compelling song-to-song and front-to-back but also something you want to return to, even above other material, is a sign of remarkable work.

Having spoken of the record itself, at least in a way, its contexts change. The joyousness of this record (and it is joyous in every last song) intersects with its disciplined cornucopia of styles.

It is not unlike D'Angelo or Kendrick's records in that it is a recollection of black art, black genius, and modern black ability.

It reaches back, like those records do, to touch the works of greats of the past and make something sincerely in the same spirit, as a reminder that these capabilities are still possessed and exist just as much in the present as in the past.

It is a two-fold aim; the historical and the modern.

But, unlike those other records, Washington's record is not a lament. It does not possess a drop of it. Instead, it is a pure celebration, a rejoicing.

There was joy and celebration in D'Angelo and Kendrick's records, of course. Likewise, there is nothing ignoble about laments, especially of the kinds of racial pain both those records dealt with.

This record sits amongst them, pursuing ultimately the same goal but through a more purely celebratory mode, choosing to focus wholly on a rejoicing of blackness and black art and black history and black genius and virtuosity past and present.

This intersects in a beautiful and profound way with the vitality of these performances and compositions. The songs are not joyful just because of major keys and supporting modes; instead, the performances and solos positively effervesce joy at all moments, humming and bright and warm.

Ultimately, that these are some of the same performers as on Kendrick's record and Flying Lotus' record only deepens the sentiment of their pure joy here.

For they have expressed pain and rage and sorrow; they have shown the breadth of humanity in their playing. And here they choose to indulge fully in joy.

It's communicative and giddy. It's lively and beautiful. What's more, it's fun. For nearly 3 hours, it is fun.

For the course of 3-discs, it is fun. And as you return again and again, it remains fun.

And jazz, through its belief in the power of Play, can let "fun" be profound, can refill something made mundane and dismissive and vulgar and shallow with the beauty and passion of soulful art.

The fun of this record is the fun of the spirit rejoicing and dancing, the fun of intimacy and shared love, the fun of divine ecstasy.

The album has a great metaphysical mass, greater than typical records. It requires alternative methods of discussion and interrogation.

It's hard to communicate the heart of this record.

But this is a failing of the mind, not of the album; that fun and play are more complex to us than other things, that passion and history is more complex, that joy is more complex.

Thankfully, Kamasi Washington and his band give us almost 3-hours to sort out our thoughts on the matter.