By Sam Fleming
Until the release of Epic, Kamasi Washington’s solo debut album, he had mostly been known for frequently collaborating with Thundercat, Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar, who have each released some of the best music of the past few years. His debut album, Epic, paints a different picture of Washington. Instead of showing his collaborative, contemporary hip-hop side, it shows his fearless leadership and command of not only his saxophone, but classic Jazz itself.
Epic clocks in at 174 minutes and barely a second of that time is wasted. Epic is divided into three parts, each about an hour long and each with a slight shift in mood. The first establishes the general larger-than-life mood for the album and shows off excellent solos by all of the band’s instrumentalists. In this section, however, there is little that is boundary pushing. The album spends its first hour building moment leading into the second section where it really takes off. This becomes clear from the fast paced first track in the second section, “Miss Understanding”. On this track Washington’s saxophone arpeggios fit perfectly with the drummers insanely quick comping and the quiet but powerful bass solos. The band hits its stride at this point and keeps it going through the rest of the project. Not only is every solo extremely technically precise, but each brings the same high energy.
Most tracks in this section behave similarly to “Miss Understanding”. They either begin with soft call and response between Washington and another player over a complex drum rhythm, or they start with faint keyboards, strings and vocals and build. An element that makes this album stand out is each track’s capacity to build from beginning to end. Most tracks on Epic run between seven and twelve minutes and all manage to build up to a blistering climax.
The intensity and emotion of the second section continue into the third. It moves into a more Latin based and individualized approach. The sections are not distinctively different, however each section can easily act alone as its own project. When Washington focuses solely on the instrumental elements of his music he delivers; it is when vocals start to creep into the mix that Epic begins to sound melodramatic. Luckily, only three songs have clear vocals, and on “Cherokee” they do not hurt the track.
What is most impressive about this album is its cohesiveness. The keyboard, bass and drums of every song lay a foundation of excellence for all other instrumentalists to follow. Washington conveys an extreme range of emotions through his saxophone, including stretches where he fearlessly blasts through squeaks. Every single soloist gives it their all, and puts forth emotion and conviction. The title of this album is ambitious, but fitting. Washington delivers a Jazz album unlike any that has been released in the last decade, and establishes a new standard for himself and all those around him. Between his work with Kendrick and his solo work, Kamasi Washington has established himself as a rising figure not only in Jazz, but all music.
Photo credit: Kamasi Washingtong album cover