At age 34, Kamasi Washington has come a long way from Inglewood, California, where he then studied saxophone and ethnomusicology at UCLA. Now, having played for esteemed artists like Herbie Hancock, Lauryn Hill, Nas, Chaka Khan, Raphael Saadiq, Snoop Dogg, and most notably, on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, Kamasi joins label mates Flying Lotus & Thundercat, artists he’s also worked with in the past, and has been granted the ability to record a project of his own over at Brainfeeder.
The record, called The Epic, is a jazz, quote-on-quote “epic,” amassing a total of three discs and three hours worth of music, joined by a band notably of Thundercat on bass, Grammy Award winner Ronald Bruner Jr., Thundercat’s older brother, on drums, and amazing instrumentalists that deserve the attention for their insane performances like Cameron Graves on piano and Igmar Thomas on trumpet, not to exclude Kamasi himself on tenor saxophone.
In today’s modern music world, where jazz is seemingly becoming more and more of a high-brow art and less in the popular “know-how” as dance-pop and rap artists, Kamasi believes that, because jazz is “being overlooked”, jazz artists like The West Coast Get Down, the band he formed and leads on The Epic, have thus “been left to [their] own devices.” He goes on to explain, in his interview with NPR, that “no one has their hands in the L.A. jazz scene that shouldn’t have their hands in the L.A. jazz scene. No one’s pushing people this way or that way, or influencing them, making them do this or making them do that. Like, on the jazz level? We’ve always just done whatever we want to do… you’re gonna get what we have in our hearts to give. I think that’s important.”
“I’ve had experiences where people say, ‘I hated jazz before I heard you guys!’” Kamasi said in an interview with Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen. “I’m like, ‘You didn’t hate jazz before you heard us, you hated the idea of jazz.’” I haven’t listened to a lot of jazz in my life, except for say Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, John Coltrane, or Thad Jones, but most of that is from having played in a jazz band in high school or looking for songs to sample. Still better than most, it’s still kind of sad.
Sure, not everyone nowadays is as into jazz as people used to, or see the value in jazz music as people used to when jazz used to be the “pop” music of America, but now it’s slowly seeping back into today’s musical culture, and one of those biggest catalysts is Kamasi Washington himself. From Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead!, and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, jazz and funk have greatly affected and reentered hip-hop/pop of the last two years, even projects unaffiliated with Kamasi, like Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk,” or Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment’s Surf. While I wouldn’t, “call it a comeback,” I would definitely call it a positive re-emergence.
The artists here on The Epic are insanely intelligent and masterful at their instruments and craft and for anyone looking to get interested in jazz or already enjoy jazz, The Epic is a fantastic fast-paced mind-fuck of creation and amazement. I honestly sat mouth agape during 80% of The Epic. Album opener “Change of the Guard,” is just a powerhouse-tour-de-force of talent. Twelve minutes of unrelenting solo’s, insane drumming, followed by a slew of more twelve minute tracks. Even if jazz “isn’t really your thing,” I highly recommend listening to the record, or at the very least just the first four tracks – Kamasi Washington’s debut isn’t just musically intelligent or just for the “high-brow” few, but a great piece of work, truly worthy of the title “Epic.”