Every now and again an album comes out that blows you away. This is either because of the music, lyrics or subject matter. Kamasi Washington’s one hundred and seventy two, yes 172, minute debut album for Brainfeeder, The Epic, has all these things and more.
The album tells the story of an old guardian for a city. From his vantage point he can see a dojo. Eventually he hopes to be challenged, lose and thus hand the torch to the new guardian. One day the doors of the dojo open and three men emerge, all set on defeating the old guardian. The first challenger has speed, but not enough strength. The second has speed and strength but is not astute enough. The third, however, has speed, power and intelligence and defeats the old guardian. Sadly this has all been a dream and when the old guardian wakes up he looks at the dojo and all of the students are children. As time passes, the children do indeed become powerful enough to challenge but the old guardian has died without being defeated. This is a great story for a rock album, let alone jazz!
But who are the musicians that Washington has co-opted to tell this story and where are they from? The answer is slightly more bizarre than The Epic’s subject matter. During its mammoth existence The Epic uses a thirty two piece orchestra, a twenty piece choir and all this is underpinned by a vehemently voracious ten piece band, known as “The Next Step” or “The West Coast Get Down”. The Next Step has been meeting regularly since they were teenagers in a shed in Inglewood, South Central LA. The group consists of bassist, and Brainfeeder artist in his own right, Thundercat and his brother Ronald Bruner Jr. and Tony Austin, both on drums, Miles Mosley also on bass, Brandon Coleman on keyboards, Cameron Graves on piano, Ryan Porter on trombone and Patrice Quinn on vocals.
Right, that’s enough of who and where, what about they why? Why form the band, concoct an amazing story and release a three hour album? The answer is simple. Washington and the Next Step want to shake up jazz and make it exciting and dangerous again! The opening track 'Changing of the Guard' does this perfectly! Opening with massive horns, piano, keyboards, drums and choral vocals, it sounds like a mixture of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Sun Ra all rolled into one. The music engulfs and sweeps through you. 'Askim' slows things down pace-wise but the intensity is still there through horns and surging bass. 'Isabelle' is tender and melancholy, with slowly drawn out horns and a mournful piano. 'The Next Step' isn’t so much a track, as a statement of intent. During its fifteen minutes, the band show what they are capable of. The song skews and contorts between bop, free and big band jazz. It also foretells to what’s to come next on volume two and three of The Epic.
I could go on describing the rest of the album, but I won’t. I’ll leave that for you to explore this vast and monumental world. All I will say is that The Epic definitely lives up to its name. In the past ten years there have been good jazz albums but Washington has produced something that not only eclipses these, he obliterates them on style and deftness of playing. Washington looks like he’s set himself up for glorious career but at the back of his mind you know he’s looking down at the dojo waiting for the challengers to eventually appear.