Okay, I’m just – now – writing a review of The Epic, the debut full-lengther – TRIPLE ALBUM – by Kamasi Washington. But here’s the thing, back after I first heard it, an advance stream, I declared it the best album of 2015. I’ve done that every year the last three years: found an album so big, bold, beautiful – so huge – and declared it the best, meaning most startling and audacious, the biggest as much as best, and then I’ve had to go on and write an actual review. In all three cases (the previous examples were Jaga Jazzist’s Live With The Britten Sinfonia and Dan Weiss’ Fourteen; I still love those records and they were the most amazing discoveries of the previous years, they share – in a sense – a spirit, a level of musical skill and widescreen approach with The Epic) it’s been so wonderfully daunting even attempting to have something to say when they leave you the right shade of speechless. Oh well, here goes…
The Epic really is huge. And it knows it. It announces it not only through the title, but the opening blow-fest has Washington summoning Coltrane’s sheets of sounds and Albert Ayler’s shronk-screech, Zorn and Ornette are in there too, sure why not, because when you’re hearing it – when you’re hearing this – Kamasi Washington is damn-near every saxophonist that ever mattered. And all at once. And he’s every great bandleader too. And a very great bandleader – allowing space for the double-drumming, the contrasting bass work of Thundercat (electric) and Miles Mosley (acoustic), the thrills and trills of Cameron Graves’ piano – there are keys and more horns and vocals too. Every song is huge. And profound. And it’s both a hark back to the best great jazz you heard and it seems to leave (that) jazz in the dust while reinventing it.
It’s jazz as soul music in a hip-hop world, it’s a world of music in the snapshot of three hours, and it’s sometimes so close to spiritually overwhelming as to get in under your skin. When Patrice Quinn steps up to sing the glorious hook of The Rhythm Changes you could be forgiven for thinking this is a wonderful end, not only that – and not only the perfect way to end, the right place to end – you could assume that this was a life’s work right here, for Washington, for all involved. In the way that any debut album is, in some sense, a life’s work up to and including that point. But The Rhythm Changes is just the end of disc 1. Side two of the LP is over – there are four more sides to slide on by. And they do. We move through more battleground-jazz (Miss Understanding), to the stately showcases where you figure we’re just being allowed to peep in on a burst of what might have been four or nine hours of continuous playing – or 20 years for that matter (Re Run).
Yes, it’s intense – but there’s such a feeling of joyfulness, of joyousness in this music.
When we do eventually hear the closing track those saxophone heroes are once again summoned – and it feels like Washington’s journey, his climb up the Mt Rushmore of Music, was soundtracked by the sandwiched three hours in between those big wig-outs.
The Epic is the true definition of a Big Serve Album – it’s not a triple that should have been a double, it couldn’t be whittled down to just a single disc of highlights, for it’s a triple-album-as-single-statement: This Is Music. This is a group of musicians playing not just for the song every time but for each other, for the soul – the soul of the tune – and the soul and heart and state of being a band; of being the conduit, the guiding hand for this music – for music.
The Epic is huge. And some people could let it happily pass them by. But there are whole worlds in here. And it’s impossible to sum it up. Or to even try. It’s an album that needs to live with you – for months (and then years). I’ve been on it for months already and it’s in me, in so many ways. And yet I’m only just starting to (try to) understand it. It’s been washing over me, leaving me punch-drunk and elated.
It’s some proof that the old adage of Music as Church can still exist in some sense.
I’ve never seen God, and I’m not looking for him – but I’ve heard some of what might be his finest work moving through the musicians moving through the music that moves this album.