#ListenToMoreJazz: Kamasi Washington Drops a Modern Classic

Sax-A-Mo-Phone, Sax-A-Mo-Phone
By    June 1, 2015



Will Schube knows that you can play a shoestring if you’re sincere.

When a Western gets released, my film professor gets asked the same question by every newspaper. “Does this mean the genre is back?” His responses vary in language but not content. “The Western was/is/will always be alive to those who want it to be, and was/is/will be dead to those that don’t care.” Perhaps the same could be asked and asserted about Kamasi Washington and the jazz world. Washington, who just released The Epic for Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder Records, is a mad-genius composer hell­bent on examining our notions of what the genre can be.

Washington is an L.A­. born-and-bred jazz saxophonist who’s recasting an important light on LA’s overlooked jazz scene. There’s a sense of ecstasy that beams off of this record towards its audience, and perhaps this feeling exists out of a sense of locality—an L.A. record that redefines jazz on a national stage. The Brainfeeder lineage isn’t direct as the electronic influences are minimal, but the relationship between artist and label speaks to Flying Lotus’ impeccable taste as a curator. His ability to see The Epic as an integral part of his label’s vision is aesthetically thrilling and re­captures the sort of ethos Brainfeeder is all about. Not only an electronic label touting Low End Theory regulars, Brainfeeder is simply a place where good shit finds a home.

The Epic was recorded at a feverish pace, as a part of a process that saw eight albums by eight artists recorded in 30 days. That’s a staggering number even before considering the length of Washington’s record: 17 songs clocking in at just under three hours. This communal feeling permeates throughout, as its vast array of performers and contributors coalesce into a grand statement on the importance of jazz within the L.A. music community.

While The Epic captures an L.A. collective during a time and place, the album isn’t hamstrung by this sense of home. Neither tethered to nor dependent on established cliches, Washington uses his city as inspiration and builds from there. His saxophone sings (“Askim”), yelps (“Henrietta Our Hero”), and soothes (“Clair de Lune”), time and again showcasing the versatility of his horn.

Washington’s inventiveness derives from a serious and thoughtful understanding of jazz history. Coltrane’s perfect smoothness, Mingus’s yearning spirituals, Mrs. Coltrane’s psychedelic wanderings, and Albert Ayler’s batshit, avant tendencies all make appearances on The Epic. Washington isn’t re­defining jazz. Instead, he’s taking the music he’s surrounded by and decisively showing that jazz is far from a stringent, bounded universe. Low End beat music, bossanova, and 70s funk/jazz fusion all appear throughout The Epic. This diverse set of influences doesn’t suggest an artist railing against the mainstream as much as it showcases the new versatility of an artist bending a world to his will.

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