The Jazz Club Vol. 1 – The Epic by Kamasi Washington

Jazz’s influence on music has been monumental, with this being especially true for metal. The musicianship and improvisation of jazz has informed much of the more technical aspects of metal (Atheist being a prime example), while numerous progressive metal bands have incorporated elements of jazz within their compositions. Due to both this and the affinity for jazz among several members of our staff, we decided to implement a new segment titled “The Jazz Club,” where a few of us will gather around with cigars and whiskey and discuss a current favorite band/artist and/or album that we believe is an essential listen for jazz fans.

For our inaugural segment, we chose to cover The Epic by Kamasi Washington, easily the most acclaimed jazz album in recent memory. Its three disc and nearly three hour presentation of spiritual jazz is an undeniably superb experience that we believe is fitting for newcomers and jazz aficionados alike. Editors Scott Murphy and Nick Cusworth and contributor Ryan Castrati sat down recently to dissect The Epic, a discussion which touched upon the album’s reference to jazz’s past, its ties to hip-hop and its potential influence moving forward.

Scott Murphy: My first real point of interest with this album is how much buzz it has been garnering. Jazz may not be an irrelevant genre, but it has certainly fallen from the cultural place which it once maintained decades ago. Even popular acts in the genre – BADBADNOTGOOD, Thundercat, Matana Roberts, Colin Stetson, etc. – do not play “true” jazz, in that they experiment beyond the typical confines of the genre. So to see an album that is not only a traditional take on the genre but one that is almost three hours long gain as much attention as it has intrigues me quite a bit, and I think it has a LOT to do with its roots in hip-hop. Kamasi played in the band that produced To Pimp a Butterfly, and this record is being released through Flying Lotus‘s label. I also find it interesting that original east coast hip-hop was so indebted to jazz samples, and now we have an instance of hip-hop kind of returning the favor and allowing a jazz record to gain some (well-deserved) recognition.

Nick Cusworth: You’re probably right with that assumption. Between the Kendrick Lamar connection and the fact that this is on Brainfeeder, which is Flying Lotus’s label (which, by the way, who would’ve thunk that FlyLo would be staking a major claim on modern jazz between his recent output as well as Thundercat?), I think that definitely helped give this album the cachet it needed to become what it’s become in such a short period of time.

Ryan Castrati: All I could think about when listening to the record was FlyLo’s statement about how he had disdain for what he dubbed, “Starbucks jazz”. I think this coming out on Brainfeeder, its length and just how steeped in the tradition of fusion and bop it is are all statements rallying against what jazz has become in FlyLo’s eyes. This is what he sees as a return to form and as you all have previously stated, it is a jazz album through and through. You couldn’t mistake it for anything else if you tried.

NC: I think it’s really fascinating to see segments of the hip-hop community not only acknowledging jazz’s history but taking an active part in incorporating it and preserving it as an artform. I think these attempts to connect and fuse the two in the past couple of decades and change have easily bred some the most refreshing and interesting pieces of “contemporary” jazz out there, and while I don’t think it should be the ONLY direction and blueprint for jazz moving forward, it’s done more to keep it alive and relevant than pretty much anything else I can think of.

RC: Hip-hop acknowledging jazz and its history really makes a lot of sense from a cultural standpoint. Jazz is a genre that has been pioneered and pushed forward by many black musicians. The influence of delta blues can be felt in jazz just as much as field hollers can be felt in blues. It only seems appropriate that the next genre that carries the flag of conveying black culture should recognize its predecessors that allowed it to step into the light. It’s wonderful to see that jazz is getting yet another wave of appreciation through modern music without feeling lost in translation or dated.

NC: God, there is nothing I hate more than seeing people try to make “modern”-sounding jazz that incorporates current and popular music elements that just results in some gross mutant muzak version of both. That’s what I really appreciate about this and the rest of the things we’ve already mentioned. It feels genuine, organic, and both appropriately steeped in its history while being unafraid to put a fresh spin on things.

SM: Completely agree with both of you. Throughout this album, I heard bits and pieces that pulled me back to my favorite jazz albums from a multitude of styles. To me, this just solidifies how strong a band leader Kamasi is; there are so many ideas packed into these tracks, and they all center around well-written riffs and pull together to form cohesive, excellent compositions. His playing is also exceptional; I hear a lot of influence from Ornette Coleman [Editor’s Note: Between the time this conversation happened and the time of posting, we learned about the passing of the great Ornette Coleman and are all deeply saddened by it], John Coltrane, Albert AyerPharaoh Sanders, etc.

NC: Oh yeah, Kamasi’s command of the instrument and of the music is just astounding. The Coltrane influence is probably most front-and-center, but as you said, there’s plenty of Ornette, plenty of Pharaoh, I think plenty of Wayne Shorter (both the player and the composer) as well. I think the music here falls in that really wonderful sweet spot of being both bold and powerful but still immediately accessible and enjoyable. I can easily see this album becoming the new go-to for a lot of people looking for an entryway into jazz.

RC: I can’t say much for recognizing influence since I’m fairly fresh-faced when it comes to jazz as a genre, but Kamasi does have an incredible handle on his instrument and he pulls every other member of the band in whichever direction he needs or wants them to go flawlessly. Everyone seems to be in their own pocket while at the same time blending with whatever happens to be going on in any particular song.

SM: And tying into that, in my opinion, are a lot of undertones of black pride. TPAB was more overt due its lyricism, but The Epic provides a swell of righteous pride that moves me. Other than the Malcolm X quote towards the end of the album, the ability of Kamasi and his band evoke that feeling with just their music is exceptional.

NC: There’s definitely a strong storytelling element to here where Kamasi is clearly concerned about projecting a mythos of strong black culture. Between the name of the album, its length, and the songs and titles that are very personality-based (“Henrietta Our Hero” and “Malcolm’s Theme” are definitely the clearest in their intentions with that), this album is ALL about making a statement. I think that’s another reason why this has received so much attention. There’s an intent here that crosses so many threads of our current culture that it’s really easy to seize upon it and see what you want to see in it.

SM: Also, while I agree with Nick that this sonically has a lot of gateway elements, what did you think about the length? While it remained consistently interesting throughout from a musical standpoint, there is inarguably a ton of music to digest in one listen.

RC: The Epic is an incredibly fitting name for this album. I chose to take it in during one listen and though I was kept interested throughout, I can’t say that I’ll be doing it very often, due to day to day life not really allowing me to listen to a nearly three hour jazz record on a whim.

NC: I don’t expect many people to just sit down and listen through the entire thing, but I think one of the album’s strengths is that you can easily start at any place here, listen however long you want, and come back to some other part without ever feeling like you missed something. As far as I can tell, there isn’t really any sort of guiding overarching narrative here or structural construct dividing the three discs. It’s just 3 hours of great music.

RC: What Nick said is perfect. You can start at any point on this album and not feel lost. Though there are those overarching tones, there is no set path as all roads lead to the same place of enjoyment and satisfaction. The shorter songs are just as delightful as the longer ones, but I do think the longer ones are taken on with a very specific approach by Kamasi and his band. No stone is left unturned and this variety is what makes the long runtime not seem so long or make it feel like a slog.

SM: Very much agree on all accounts. Are there specific tracks that caught your ears?

NC: Oh man, for me it’s ALL about “The Magnificent Seven.” That track just absolutely rips and has a groove to it (7/4 no less) that really anchors it for me. “Change of the Guard” and “Askim” are also definitely highlights. I love how much “Miss Understanding” sounds like it could’ve been a cut straight from Seven Steps-era Miles Davis.

RC: The vibe that “Leroy and Lanisha” puts out really grabs me. Its frantic moments intertwined with its soothing and somehow familiar rhythms make it feel like a relationship with ups and downs. “Malcolm’s Theme” is also an instant standout because of its message and just how catchy the song can be throughout.

SM: “Leroy and Lanisha” is another favorite of mine. The one that immediately comes to mind is “Askim” – this feels like the culmination of everything on this record, and it is only the second track. Everything just fits together perfectly, and the moment towards the end when the rhythm section is erupting, strings and gospel chorus are soaring and Kamasi is absolutely wailing on the sax combine into exactly what Ryan said — Epic.

NC: If there is kind of one constant throughout the entirety of the album, the gospel chorus — which seems to kind of serve a “heavenly chorus” purpose to the “epics” being told — is that. I can’t say I was the biggest fan of the prominence of vocals on some of the tracks just because I’ve never really been a huge jazz vocals kind of guy, but I really did appreciate them on “Henrietta Our Hero.” It was an unexpected, but welcome addition. It also definitely made me think of FlyLo’s You’re Dead! often because of it.

SM: I do prefer the instrumental tracks, as that is my favorite style of jazz. However, I think that the more vocal oriented tracks do blend in well, and become more on an instrument instead of a dominator of the music. That is why I love the gospel choruses so much; they add that vocal beauty without taking anything away from the instruments.

RC: I’m on the opposite end of where Nick is at with the vocals because they just felt so natural and fit with the music. I like all of the vocal tracks and think that their peppering throughout the album is well done. Also, to reference a part of something that Nick said earlier and to tie this into metal just a bit, jazz feels like one of those things that people just try to shove into something else to make some mutant musack that makes them seem interesting or even “intelligent”. It feels like it’s relegated to the same fate as black metal, where a band will just put a flash of it in their music like a parlor trick to say, “Hey! Look what we’re into!” I feel like that’s what jazz is becoming in a lot of areas, so it’s great to see such a pure record make its way into the public eye with positive feedback instead of just being viewed as a novelty or a trick to pull out of a hat.

NC: I feel like there’s a joke to be made here about certain progressive bands, but I’ll refrain from overstretching.

SM: Kind of bringing our conversation fill circle again, what kind of impact do you think this album will have?

NC: God, trying to predict the impact of anything when it comes to jazz is pretty much an impossible task. I think this is definitely an album that the more mainstream elements of the business are definitely going to be paying close attention to and hold as kind of their “LOOK, WE’RE STILL RELEVANT, SEE? PAY ATTENTION TO US” album for a while. Beyond that, your guess is as good as mine.

SM: While I also find these types of questions hard to predict, I do see this as a parallel to TPAB – in more ways than one, but specifically in a “change in the game” kind of way. Like I said, traditional jazz has not had a lot of visibility in recent years, just like the style of theatric, conscious, album-based hip-hop has fallen to the fray a little bit. I genuinely believe that TPAB and The Epic will leave an imprint on modern music, most likely upon the sounds we hear in modern day hip-hop. I am not sure what that is, but there is no way that this album will not be remembered as a jazz great; it will without question be regarded as a classic in spiritual jazz, alongside A Love Supreme and Karma.

RC: This album, and to some extent TPAB, are going to be things that jazz fans can hold onto and, just as Nick said, say “See! We’re still relevant and have our place!” Though it is a place that is deserving and good for the genre, I don’t think this album will be deemed a classic. Not because it isn’t, but because it will be drowned out by the trend that comes next year and the year after that.

NC: The fact is at the end of the day, this is a 3-hour jazz album that incorporates a lot of different influences and elements but is just so deeply rooted in the meat and potatoes of the genre that I don’t know just how much crossover you’re going to get. I think more likely the greater effect it’ll have is on people who have mild interest in jazz-like things and are looking for something more recent and relevant to hold onto. Like, this album pretty much has Grammy Award-winner written all over it. Whether that’s a good thing is up for debate.

RC: It may win that Grammy and deserve all the praise that it gets, but that doesn’t mean that it will be given exposure for a long enough amount of time to be absorbed as it was meant to and should be, This record will be held in the heads of many dearly, but it’s not going to be on the timeline of turning points for the genre as a whole. It may be a revival, but predicting where things will go from here based off a record or two just seems shaky.

SM: I am probably being swept up in the euphoria of excellent 2015 releases. I just feel like this record is too good to not be recognized in some way. Whether or not it has a significant impact remains to be seen, but I hope that it does. This is the first 2015 that I have personally loved to the max and can “objectively” (or rather, contextually) deem as a “great” album. As of right now, this is a very clear AOTY contender for me.

NC: For sure will be pretty high up on my list. And it is objectively a “great” album. I just hope it doesn’t get relegated to the status of many pieces of art and media that get placed up as “great” pieces and are assigned a kind of snooty elitist status to it as something to be “admired” rather than enjoyed. People should really enjoy this album on a visceral and natural level. It’s dense and complex but completely approachable in the way that many of the great jazz albums are.

RC: I completely agree with Nick in that it should be an album enjoyed by the people rather than placed on a pedestal of admiration and status.

SM: I totally feel you guys on that. I guess what I meant is not that the album should “have” to be appreciated, but that a lot of people do find this album somehow and have some level of interest in jazz inspired in them. Listening to this album reminded me of the first time I heard Kind of Blue, and how that experience really catapulted my love for jazz. I would love to see that happen for other people, and this is an excellent album to make that happen.

NC: Yep, Kind of Blue, Maiden Voyage, maybe even Head Hunters and A Love Supreme were the ones I was thinking of.

RC: I can very much see this being a springboard for someone to dive into jazz, though I think people will have to already have a slight inclination or interest in it to really get into it. I’m sure that most people can appreciate it, but it is nearly three hours long with the shortest song being over six minutes and on the first half of the album. The length will intimidate most listeners.

SM: Hearing even part of one of these songs immediately draws me in, so I hope that it would do the same for others, even if it only solicits interest in a track or two.

NC: Solution: Get some people outdoors, cook some food, and blast this all summer long. People will be into it, and if they’re not, you should probably reconsider your friendship or association with them.

The Epic has been released since May and may be ordered here.

-SM, NC & RC

"In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there's something stronger - something better - pushing right back." - Albert Camus