The Epic is saxophonist Kamasi Washington's aptly titled, triple-length, 172-minute debut album for Brainfeeder. He is a veteran of L.A.'s music scene and has played with Gerald Wilson, Harvey Mason, Flying Lotus, and Kendrick Lamar (his horn is prominently featured on To Pimp a Butterfly), to name but a few. Most of his bandmates have played together since high school, and it shows.
There are two drummers (including Ronald Bruner), two bassists (including Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner on electric), two keyboardists, trumpet, trombone, and vocals (Patrice Quinn). In various settings, they are supported by a string orchestra and full choir conducted by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson.
Washington composed 13 of these 17 tunes; he also meticulously arranged and produced them. At just over six to nearly 15 minutes, the jams leave room for engaged improvisation. The Epic is based on a concept, though it's unnecessary to grasp in order to enjoy. The music reflects many inspirations -- John Coltrane, Horace Tapscott's Pan-African People's Arkestra, Azar Lawrence's Prestige period, Donald Byrd's and Eddie Gale's jazz and choir explorations, Pharoah Sanders' pan global experiments, Afro-Latin jazz, spiritual soul, and DJ culture.
A formidable soloist (he plays his ass off here), Coltrane is his greatest influence, but his tone is rawer, somewhere between Sanders and Albert Ayler. Disc one's "Change of the Guard" is an overture that commences with confident modal piano, a labyrinthine ensemble head, testifying choir, and bright, expansive solos from piano, trumpet, tenor, and upright bass, creating openness and drama.
There's balladic progressivism ("Isabelle"), strident Afro-Latin grooves ("Final Thought"), and Central Avenue roots ("The Next Step"), before it turns toward soulful futurism on "The Rhythm Changes," with vocals from Quinn. Disc two features the carooming electric post-bop of "Miss Understanding" with explosive choir, nasty Rhodes piano, and killer solos by Washington and trumpeter Igmar Thomas.
"Re Run" emerges as sun-kissed spiritual jazz with trilling strings and choir before it evolves swinging, with a funky swagger amid popping keys, fleet electric bass, and trombone solos and strident breaks. "The Magnificent 7" contains an obvious cinematic reference with its swirling kinetic strings and airy chorale, but the ground is roaring electric, spiritual jazz-funk courtesy of Thundercat and Brandon Coleman's organ and Rhodes.
Disc three features the groove-drenched single "Re Run Home." Its head is straight on; Horace Silver and Harold Land come to mind, but the body spirals and turns left toward South L.A. funk. Traditions are bridged by a sunshiny soul cover of Ray Noble's standard "Cherokee," Terence Blanchard's poignant "Malcolm's Theme" (a gorgeous duet between Quinn and Dwight Trible), and a lithe read of Debussy's "Clair de Lune" before closing with the propulsive, Latin-tinged, funky vanguardism of "The Message."
The Epic isn't fusion, retro, or remotely academic. It's 21st century jazz as accessible as it is virtuosic -- feel matters to Washington. Holistic in breadth and deep in vision, it provides a way into this music for many, and challenges the cultural conversation about jazz without compromising or pandering.
AMG Review by Thom Jurek
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