On Kamasi Washington

Kamasi WashingtonThe Epic (Brainfeeder, 2015)

It turns out that while I was obsessing about the Los Angeles project called The Gathering — it’s a shame that their Kickstarter didn’t get funded — the central L.A. jazz scene had already gathered some serious national attention. It wasn’t until I began writing the last of my Gathering posts that I finally caught up with the buzz around Kamasi Washington.

Washington comes from the same Leimert Park district that Horace Tapscott, Jesse Sharps, and others had nurtured as a musical nexus. Washington made a splash early last year with The Epic, a three-CD collection of Coltrane-infused music with McCoy Tyner-style chords: a big and truly epic sound, backed in places by an orchestra and/or a 10-person choir.

The news here is about more than Washington himself. He’s part of a collective, the West Coast Get Down, that plans to release seven albums, of which The Epic is the first. With the media attention that The Epic has received, you could say this is the very L.A.-jazz insurgence I was hoping The Gathering could ignite. Washington represents a new generation of players with electronica and R&B influences, but the music is grown from the same jazz roots.

Parts of The Epic aren’t my cup of tea, but it’s all toward a good cause. The crowds that Washington is drawing represent a new audience for jazz. Most of them won’t venture any further, but somewhere in those dancing, hollering masses are a few souls who will read the press around Washington and pick up on references to John Coltrane and to albums like Transition.

With any luck, they’ll catch the bug. And maybe they’ll even glean the secret — that while Coltrane is the master and the leader, it’s McCoy Tyner who powered the sound of that quartet.  I love the way Ethan Iverson phrased it on his “Do the Math” blog: “One doesn’t offhand think of McCoy Tyner as unrecognized, but as far as I know, no jazz critic gave Tyner credit for inventing a language of jazz at the time. To this day, John Coltrane gets all (or at least most) of the credit.”

Elsewhere, Iverson makes an insightful comment about The Epic: “I wonder what Azar Lawrence, Billy Harper, and Gary Bartz make of the buzz. They played this style when it was fresh — hell, they helped invent the style.”

One thing I like about where West Coast Get Down are coming from, though, is their sincere love of making music. Here’s Miles Mosely, being interviewed by No Treble about the West Coast Get Down appearing on rapper Kendrick Lamar’s latest album:

Don’t get me wrong: we’ve done really great jobs with creating electronic music. That’s also very difficult to do and has its own sound, but it’s nice to hear the sound of musicians making decisions on a record again, because that’s gone away. Everything has been very polished. What made Motown and Stax so special was great musicians making informed decisions on great songs.

Emphasis mine. I just love that phrase, “musicians making decisions.” Hadn’t heard it put that way before.

By Jeremy Tarling on Flickr, CC2.0 license.

The biggest tracks on The Epic are those Tyner-esque ones, but the album crosses into other territory as well — soulful, peaceful grooves such as “Isabelle”; the quick-handed “Miss Understanding,” like the classic Miles Davis quintet on speed; the overkill of “Henrietta Our Hero” (which is a tender and moving song, but smothered in Broadway treacle).

The highlights are Washington’s breathtaking, infinitely tumbling sax solos (and his not-so-subtle use of overblowing, which is impressive but could use more finesse). But the rest of the band is aces as well. Every track springs an excellent improvisation from somebody, not just Washington. I especially like the rich, high-throttle bass solos on “The Magnificent 7” and what I think is an electric bass solo (it might be guitar) over the optimistic gallop of “The Message.” Whichever bassist it is (the record has two: Miles Mosley and Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner) just has a great sound on those strings.

So, what’s not to like?

Well … it’s the pop attitude to some extent, but it’s also the frills. The choir and orchestra do their job of building an epic feeling to the album, but how necessary are they?

Take a track like “Changing of the Guard.” I think it suffers from those extra layers. They’ve been added after-the-fact, and it shows: They cross the solos unevenly and weigh the track down. During the piano solo, particularly, I want to hear the piano and bass free-wheeling over the vaguely sketched chord changes — but the strings, in this case, enforce those harmonies, creating strict borders on a solo where the lines should be only loosely drawn.

Put another way: One towering aspect of late ’60s jazz, to me, is that while it’s chord-based, the players drift outside that lane frequently. With all its embellishments, The Epic draws those lane lines in thick Sharpee pen, and it’s too distracting to the sense of freedom that can make this music truly great.

It’s similar to the problem bands have when they play live with pre-recorded tracks or even a click track. What makes a live performance great is the ability to play to the moment. Subtle tempo changes, impossible to wrangle when backing tracks are involved, are part of The Moment.

Yes, it’s a matter of taste; the embellishments aren’t much different from the overacting and overdramatizing found in pop music. I don’t deny these musicians’ talent, their true intentions, or Washington’s gravitational charisma. There’s good music in here; I just think they overdid it.

Overall, I’m glad The Epic happened, partly for the L.A. representation, partly for putting jazz on the map for a lot of people who assumed they didn’t like jazz. And the occasional bombastic gesture isn’t my style, but it adds a sense of fun to the business.

For a more direct reading of Washington’s saxophone attack, you could try out Throttle Elevator Music’s Jagged Rocks. It’s essentially and album of indie-rock instrumentals, with Washington unleashed to romp all over the music. Sometimes the fit is awkward, but mostly, it just plain grooves — as if Washington is off the stage, out of costume, and just kicking back in someone’s garage.

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