Readers, I’m sorry that it has taken me so long to get round to taking a look at this celebrated release from Kamasi Washington.
Every so often an artist comes along that it is important to have an opinion about. Kamasi Washington is of that ilk. His first release is a triple CD set featuring nearly three hours of music. Some of the tracks are indeed epic in scale featuring large choirs together with a 32 piece orchestra and he appeared live in concert at the BBC Proms at the end of August 2016. His tenor saxophone work is likened to that of some of the greatest musicians of all time. The album is entitled The Epic for a reason and trying to do it justice will be no easy task, so I will be doing so over the whole of August and September 2016, starting with some initial impressions before working towards some conclusions by the end of September 2016. If you want to join me and have some dialogue, get yourself a copy. There is also an opinion poll at the end of the piece that you are welcome to participate in (the current results are shown after you have voted).
Volume 1: The Plan
Change of the Guard is dedicated to Austin Peralta, a musician of great talent and tremendous promise who died at the age of 22. You can read about him here.
Askim contains a long solo which builds from the mellifluous and slowly moves towards the discordant before calm returns. This track introduces us to another side of Washington’s playing. Again, I find the choir distracting.
Isabelle is played by a septet and the choir take a break. It is a gentle contemplative piece.
Final Thought is funkier with Brandon Coleman’s organ to the fore before Washington comes in with an exciting and powerful solo.
The choir are back on The Next Step. KW’s sensitive solo does not to be surrounded and this piece is over-embellished.
The Rhythm Changes is a song featuring Patrice Quinn on lead vocals, initially accompanied by the trombone of Ryan Porter. Again, I’m not convinced by this saccharine confection.
Volume 2: The Gloroius Tale
Miss Understanding. Trumpet run from Igmar Thomas
Leroy and Lanisha. A light lilting piece featuring a duet between trombone and tenor saxophone. A high point of the opus so far.
Re Run is next and the gargling choir are back on a Latin flavoured piece which turns into something special during Washington’s solo. Get out those soft jazz dance shoes, or better still, wait for the superior version of this track on the third CD, where the choir do not feature (although Washington’s solo is far less interesting).
Seven Prayers is played by a nonet with both acoustic and electric bass. Instruments are voiced in unison and guess what, they sound a little like a choir.
Henrietta Our Hero features another lead vocal from Patrice Quinn, which gives way to an enjoyable chorus on saxophone from Washington.
The Magnificent 7. Once again some great soloing from Kamasi but the choir is present to dilute the power of what he is serving up . The composition is a good one that is over developed and submerged in cloying sweetener. I could imagine this working on a big festival stage and this is stadium-sized rather than club jazz.
Volume 3: The Historic Repetition
Re Run Home is one of the most immediate tracks on the entire set. Uptempo and anthemic. However the soloing seems a little simplistic. You can have a listen courtesy of Brainfeeder on YouTube:-
Cherokee starts like a bright and bushy 1990’s Diana Brown track before the lead vocalist comes in. She doesn’t do much for me, I’m afraid.
Clair de Lune is a dreamy realisation of the Debussey piece on which the choir makes an appearance. There is a Hollywood, 30’s feel on this.
Malcolm’s Theme is a tribute to Malcolm X with extract from a speech which is liberal in its content and argues in favour of religious co-existence between Islam and Christianity and black and white. The music takes second place here on a piece that probably would not have made it onto a single CD, although KW’s solo is strong and it is a pity it is compromised by the other more indulgent aspects of this track.
The Message is a pleasant jazz funk meander which provides a springboard for a deft and exciting KW solo but is overlong.
My initial reactions are that Kamasi Washington overdoes things with this triple set. He offers up a full menu in one sitting when we would probably be better served with smaller portions featuring complimentary favours rather than a whole gargantuan blow-out. As will be clear by now, the choir doesn’t do much for me but some of you may like it. Washington clearly has at least one strong film score in the locker as there is much about The Epic that signals this to be the case.
I have added a quick single choice poll to see what you and fellow readers think of Kamasi Washington. Please feel free to complete and also to add a comment to get a lively debate going.
I’ll keep on listening and try to supplement this within the coming weeks.
First update:- Saturday 3 September:- A recording of KW’s BBC Proms performance from The Royal Albert Hall is on BBC iPlayer for the next 26 days and I have just listened to it. Unfortunately, the presence of The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and choir resulted in the aspects of KW’s work that I enjoy least being aired. The audience who saw the performance were very vocal in their appreciation and seemed to enjoy themselves.
Update: Tuesday 6 September 2016:- Six responses to the opinion poll so far and all positive, with five people wanting to hear more and one going for the even more enthusiastic ‘future of jazz’ position. Please keep the responses coming in and feel free to leave a comment.
Update: Thursday 8 September 2016 The liveliness of Final from the first CD was exciting after reviewing Grant Green’s Street of Dreams. The stripped down band can play and this was fun.
Update: Friday 9 September 2016. Miss Understanding is 8 minutes and 46 seconds long and the seven minutes that the choir sit things out for is very good. The introduction is somewhat ostentatious but after 90 seconds it settles to a fine track on which KW plays with fire and gusto.
Update: Sunday 11 September 2016. 8 votes so far, with 6 regarding KW as ‘Interesting new talent’ and one each for the other two choices
Update: Tuesday 16 November 2016. 77% of voters, so far, regard KW as ‘Interesting new talent’; 8% agree that KW is ‘the future of jazz’ while 15% go for’over-rated and unlikely to listen to again’.
Update: Monday 2 January 2017.
I’ve not felt inclined to re-listen to’The Epic’. Eventually I will get round to a selective re-listen concentrating on the tracks that I do like. I’ll also watch out for Kamasi Washington’s next release in the hope that he veers in the direction of work with small bands without choral arrangements and vocals. Just in case you are unable to read the poll on your machine or phone, as of today 15 readers had voted in the poll:- 67% of voters, as of 2/1/17, regarded KW as ‘Interesting new talent’; 20% agreed that KW is ‘the future of jazz’ while 13% went for’over-rated and unlikely to listen to again’. Thanks for taking part- I will leave the poll open until KW releases another set.
You need to vote to view the results as only the premium version of this plugin offers a preview option, although I will visit and provide a breakdown in the updates from time to time.