By now I’ve had a few more weeks to spend with Kamasi Washington’s long awaited release, and perhaps the most appropriately titled record of the 21st century, The Epic, and my feelings for it haven’t changed much over that period of time. The Epic is finest Jazz recording of this new century. At three separate CDs (I don’t even know how many sides of vinyl this would end up being…8? 10???), 17 tracks and almost 3 hours in length, you could be excused for thinking that there must be some filler here, or some moments that drag or some tracks to skip…but there are none. What we have is an exceptionally thrilling piece of music, from start to finish, that encompasses the many different styles and moods that Kamasi and his group, The Next Step, augmented by strings and a choir, have been associated with over the last several years here in Los Angeles.
While The Epic has drawn some comparisons to the work of John Coltrane in his spiritual period, post “A Love Supreme” and Miles Davis’ fusion groups of the mid-1970s, I don’t really find those comparisons particularly apt. Instead, the artist whom Kamasi, with varied styles and sounds on this album, most reminds me of is Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Kirk was a true master of his many instruments and part of his mastery was the ability to play any style and any time, and to sound at home, whether it was New Orleans Dixieland or straight up Jazz-Funk. Kamasi has that similar chameleon ability, not only in the seamless way songs incorporate multiple genres, but in his playing itself. Whereas many contemporary saxophone players clearly worship at the altar of a single influence (generally John Coltrane), Kamasi’s solos flow from the sublime and softness of a Lester Young, to the fire and brimstone of Pharoah Sanders to the greasy soul of a Lou Donaldson or Rusty Bryant, without sounding directly like any of those masters. Such was the quality of Rahsaan Roland Kirk that made him beloved by so many, a quality that Kamasi also seems to be developing as his own legend grows. Another link to Rahsaan is the importance of dreams for his music, and the inspiration of dreams that compelled Kamasi to not break up this music into separate releases, but to group all 17 tracks together into a three part story.
In truth, the sound displayed on The Epic owes less to Rahsaan, than it does to the artist collectives of the 1970s, from here in Los Angeles with Horace Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, to the spiritual and uplifting sounds of Mtume Umoja Ensemble, Billy Parker’s Fourth World and the Ensemble Al-Salaam. The Epic shares the adventurous sound of those artists, while not being solely anchored in the past. As with those groups, it’s highly likely that the ability of Kamasi to not be tied to a single sound or a signle definition of what his music could be is owed to the fact that he’s been able to record this album for the artist controlled Brainfeeder record label, at the behest of label head Flying Lotus. There’s a freedom within this album that you rarely see in contemporary jazz, a freedom to honor the past, but to push the artform into the future.
Given my particular tastes, it’s perhaps not surprising that I am most drawn to the songs that do seem to be most influenced or directly referencing the past, as is the case on the song chosen for this review, “Malcolm’s Theme,” a piece that serves as a fitting tribute here on the 90th anniversary of Malcolm X’s birth. Kamasi’s choice to have Patrice Quinn and Dwight Trible render Ossie Davis’ moving eulogy to Brother Malcolm into song, along with the rhythms provided by the band, take a piece that could have been elegiac and make it triumphant. Malcolm’s voice, interposed with the music, speaks to us, and remains relevant these 50 years since his murder. As the penultimate song on The Epic, “Malcolm’s Theme” serves as a reminder of the paths we have taken to arrive at the present, and of the work we still have ahead to create a future worthy of those who made it all possible. That future is made brighter by Kamasi Washington and the musicians who have given us a true blessing with the music on this album.