The Epic (Brainfeeder)
Released May 5, 2015
The Guardian Highest Rated Jazz Albums of All Time
Jazzwise Album of the Year 2015
DownBeat Album of the Year Critics Poll
AllMusic Favorite Jazz Albums 2015
The story begins with a man on high. He is an old man, a warrior, and the guardian to the gates of a city. Two miles below his mountainous perch, he observes a dojo, where a group of young men train night and day. Eventually, the old man expects a challenger to emerge. He hopes for the day of his destruction, for this is the cycle of life. Finally the doors fly open and three young men burst forth to challenge the old master. The first man is quick, but not strong enough. The second is quick, and strong, but not wise enough. The third stands tall, and overtakes the master. The Changing of the Guard has at long last been achieved. But then the old man wakes up. He looks down at the dojo and realizes he’s been daydreaming. The dojo below exists, but everyone in training is yet a child. By the time they grow old enough to challenge the old man, he has disappeared. This is, in essence, both a true story and a carefully constructed musical daydream, one that will further unfold in May of 2015, in a brazen release from young Los Angeles jazz giant, composer, and bandleader Kamasi Washington. The Epic is unlike anything jazz has seen, and not just because it emanates from the boundary-defying Brainfeeder, which isn’t so much a label in the traditional sense as it is an unfurling experiment conducted by the underground producer Flying Lotus who has featured Washington on his albums Cosmogramma and You’re Dead!. The Epic is a 172-minute, three-volume set that includes a 32-piece orchestra, a 20-person choir, and 17 songs overlaid with a compositional score written by Washington. Pulsing underneath is an otherworldly ten-piece band, each member of which is individually regarded as among the best young musicians on the planet – including bassist Thundercat and his brother, drummer Ronald Bruner Jr., bassist (yes, there are two) Miles Mosley, drummer Tony Austin (of course there are two), keyboard player Brandon Coleman, pianist Cameron Graves, and trombonist Ryan Porter. Patrice Quinn’s ethereal vocals round out the ensemble. The band are all from Los Angeles, mostly South Central, and its members – who call themselves variously “The Next Step” and the “The West Coast Get Down” – have been congregating since they were barely teenagers in a backyard shack in Inglewood. Washington, 32, has known Bruner since he was two. The rest met, at various stages, by the time they were in high school. The hours they have put into the music, playing together and practicing alone, total cumulatively in the tens of thousands. “Nothing compares to these guys,” says Barbara Sealy, the former West Coast director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, who has championed Kamasi and his compatriots from the beginning. “I challenge any group to go out on stage with them and see if they can keep up with it… Kamasi is at the top of his game, and only getting better.” “These young guys,” the rapper Common says, “remind me of why I love music.” And the story The Epic tells, without words but rather through some combination of magic, mastery, and sheer force of imagination, is the story of Kamasi Washington and the Next Step and their collective mission: to remove jazz from the shelf of relics and make it new, unexpected, and dangerous again. They seek to both honour and alter tradition: as The Epic’s opening track announces, they are the “Changing of the Guard”. The sound can be felt like flames, sometimes waving in the coziness of a fireplace, in other moments sweeping everything around like a backdraft. But Kamasi is always in control of the burning. “He just plays the craziest shit, man. I mean, everything — the past, present, the future,” Flying Lotus says, whose family lineage includes one of Washington’s direct musical forebears, John Coltrane. “It’s hard to find unique voices in this music. Especially in jazz, more so lately, everybody is trying to do the same shit.
Disc 1 – The Plan
1. Change of the Guard (Kamasi Washington) 12:15
2. Askim (Kamasi Washington) 12:34
3. Isabelle (Kamasi Washington) 12:12
4. Final Thought (Kamasi Washington) 6:31
5. The Next Step (Kamasi Washington) 14:48
6. The Rhythm Changes (Patrice Quinn / Kamasi Washington) 7:45
Disc 2 – The Glorious Tale
1. Miss Understanding (Kamasi Washington) 8:46
2. Leroy and Lanisha (Kamasi Washington) 9:24
3. Re Run (Kamasi Washington) 8:19
4. Seven Prayers (Kamasi Washington) 7:35
5. Henrietta Our Hero (Patrice Quinn / Kamasi Washington) 7:13
6. The Magnificent 7 (Kamasi Washington) 12:48
Disc 3 – The Historic Repetition
1. Re Run Home (Kamasi Washington) 14:06
2. Cherokee (Ray Noble) 8:14
3. Clair de Lune (Claude Debussy) 11:07
4. Malcolm’s Theme (Terence Blanchard / Jamie Davis) 8:40
5. The Message (Kamasi Washington) 11:11
“Change Of The Guard” dedicated to Austin Peralta.
“Isabelle” dedicated to Isabelle Diggs.
“Seven Parayers” dedicated to Zane Musa.
“Henrietta Our Hero” dedicated to Henrietta Curtis.
“Clair De Lune” dedicated to Gerald Wilson.
Kamasi Washington: tenor saxophone
Thundercat: electric bass
Miles Mosley: acoustic bass
Ronald Bruner: drums
Tony Austin: drums
Leon Mobley: percussion
Cameron Graves: piano, organ, choir vocal
Brandon Coleman: keyboards. organ
Ryan Porter: trombone
Igmar Thomas: trumpet
Patrice Quinn: lead vocals
Dwight Trible: lead vocals
Neel Hammond, Tylana Renga Enomoto, Paul Cartwright, Jennifer Simone, Lucia Micarelli: violin
Molly Rodgers, Andrea Whitt: viola
Artyom Manukyan, Ginger Murphy: cello
Dawn Norfleet, Thalma de Freitas, Maiya Sykes, Gina Manziello, Patrice Quinn, Natasha F Agrama, Dwight Trible, Steven Wayne, Taylor Graves, Charles Jones, Jason Morales, Dexter Story, Tracy Carter: choir vocal
Recorded at King Size Sound Labs
Producer: Kamasi Washington
Lead Tracking Engineer: Tony Austin
Mastered by Stephen Marcussen
Mixed by Benjamin Tierney
Photography by Mike Park Cover Art: Patrick Henry Johnson
The title is not to be taken lightly. In numbers it translates as: 3CDs; 17 songs; 32-piece orchestra; 20-piece choir; 10-piece band. With scale being such a defining feature of this music, it is also worth noting that there are 172 minutes to contend with, and it is to Washington’s credit that the output is justified, first and foremost because the artistic ambition matches the sweeping production.
Known for his work with producer Flying Lotus and a member of the Los Angeles aggregation The West Coast Get Down, Washington is a player and composer with a penchant for long-form pieces in which melodic lines are ornate anthems wrapped in finely shaded orchestral threads. Although music industry marketeers will inevitably tag this as ‘spiritual jazz’ the dominant aesthetic thankfully avoids any of the sub-genre’s clichés, such is Washington’s desire to draw together references that are refreshingly disparate. In real terms that means that the all-important choral basis of the music – mostly sleek soprano lines that soar around the themes like a volley of flutes and piccolos – blends Horace Silver and Pharoah Sanders from the 1980s rather than 70s (think the former’s The Continuity Of Spirit and the latter’s Heart Is A Melody), while some of the rhythmic and harmonic content has the authoritative, dark-tolight stance of the great Horace Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra. Washington’s own playing, with his dry, stark tone and concise, clenched phrasing is impressive, but the greatest achievement of this work is the newness that springs from a deep historical root.
Moving from hard swing to funk to some of the digital age sensibilities scoped out by Thundercat, this is an album of progressive present day thinking that willfully acknowledges its debt to the past, as befits the ongoing relationship between the two. So if there is a sample of a Malcolm X speech it is relevant to the current political debate: There’s nothing wrong with being a Muslim. There is something very right about the premise and execution of this work.
Kevin Le Gendre (Jazzwise)