By Cam Raymond
Epics, or epic poems rather, are lengthy narratives in which a hero has to undertake a massive journey or fight a seemingly impossible enemy. They have major significance to humanity. One of the earliest works of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh is considered an epic. In the ancient Mesopotamian story Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk goes on a journey to find immortality after his friend Enkidu dies. Through his journey, Gilgamesh comes to the realization that looking for immortality is futile. He learns that despite the fact that he may die, human kind will live forever and that he can live on through his achievements in life. Epics have evolved from being a purely oral or written medium. Many of of the movies that are made today deal with either a serious internal or external conflict that have major repercussions for humanity as a whole. In the three hours Kamasi Washington gives us on his 2015 album, The Epic, he attempts to address topics like love, religion (specifically Islam), and the civil rights movement in a largely lyric-less jazz album.
The Epic is broken up into three discs, The Plan, The Glorious Tale, and The Historic Repetition, and the story arc of the album vaguely follows these titles. The LP is based on a recurring dream Kamasi had in which there is a guard whose sole purpose is to guard a gate which is at the top of a mountain. There is a village at the bottom of the mountain, and the people in the village are always trying to challenge the guard and get past him and through the gate. One day, four villagers reach the top of the mountain and the guard sees something special in them. He decides to let them beat him and make it through the gate. It’s futile to try and make each song fit into this story, but the similarities between the album and the dream are clear.
The LP starts off with the fast-paced song, “Change of the Guard” which, if you were to relate it to Kamasi’s dream, would be as the four villagers climb the mountain, getting ready to face the guard. It’s characterized by it’s maximalist, busy, quick style, with horns and drums coming in sporadically with rapid bursts of sound. A 20-person choir backing up Kamasi’s main melody is sonically similar to a church choir giving the song a religious feel, as if the four villagers are on a God-given mission. Like most tracks on this album, this song will take multiple detours from the original melody or style and switch up the sound completely. “Change of the Guard” goes from swing to straight eighth notes with a Latin feel, and dropping out all the instruments except the bass and trumpet for a soaring solo is not uncommon. This song climaxes with a solo from Kamasi’s saxophone that culminates with screeching schizophrenic sounding high notes and runs, signalling that the villagers have beaten the guard and are on their way through the gate.
The album switches it up from the overwhelmingly fast style of “Change of the Guard” and its following track “Askim” with songs like “Isabelle,” Which features a slower tempo and underlying organ and bass guitar. This track is much darker and evokes images of a dimly lit, run down bar where the band would play old jazz standards about past lovers. On this track, Kamasi shows his ability to play without feeling rushed. On this track, Kamasi shows that he doesn’t feel like he has to cram as many notes and runs into a bar as he can. He lingers on notes and is able to let them breath a bit (something that is refreshing after almost 25 minutes of fast paced playing). He switches back and forth between these two styles on songs like “Final Thought” and “The Next Step.” The former features a driving bass line, straight Latin drums, and hectic feel while the latter has a loose swing and is at times reminiscent of John Coltrane and Duke Ellington’s song “In a Sentimental Mood.” The final song on disc one, “The Rhythm Changes,” features the first vocal performance of the album by Patrice Quinn who on the first verse sings,
“Our minds, our bodies, our feelings
They change, they alter, they leave us
Somehow, no matter what happens
Her voice floats over the relatively minimal instrumental consisting of strings, drums, and piano while she repeats her love for her significant other.
The first song of disc two, The Glorious Tale, is “Miss Understanding” and starts off with a build up of saxophone, strings, choir, and more erratic drums. Kamasi then leads the ensemble into a rapid fire of straight thirty-second notes running up and down scales. It’s clear that Kamasi has no problem switching up the tempo and feel from song to song, or even bar to bar. The cut “Leroy and Lanisha” features bits of the same melody from “The Rhythm Changes” connecting the two thematically. Unfortunately, midway through disc two the album starts to drag. Songs like “Seven Prayers,” though nice to listen to, could easily be cut out without hindering the album too much. The album picks up with another appearance from Quinn on the track “Henrietta Our Hero,” where she sings about the determined Henrietta who, “fought her battle alone with love.” Here she rises above the lush choir and dense instrumentation and delivers a performance that demonstrates her wide vocal range.
By far some of the most stand-out tracks on The Epic are on Disc Three, one of them being “Cherokee,” an old 1938 jazz standard by Ray Noble. Kamasi lifts the song from the days of absurdly fast bebop and gives it a new, slower, spin. Adding a loose swing, acoustic guitar and choir to back up Patrice on lead vocals creates a summery and light-hearted atmosphere. “Malcolm’s Theme,” an ode to Malcolm X, is the album’s way of reconnecting with the civil rights movement, one that was closely entwined with jazz and soul artists like Nina Simone, Louis Armstrong and Charles Mingus. Patrice Quinn sings from the perspective of someone who knew Malcom and is recalling his personality, his conviction and his mastery of words. She remembers how Malcom would smile at people, how he would talk to people. Most of all though, she says that the most important thing Malcom did was empower young black people singing, “And so we honor, the best in ourselves. The gift he gave us all.” They play a timely segment of a speech from the famed el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz (Malcom’s Arabic name) where he discusses the religion of Islam and how there are more similarities between it and religions like Judaism and Christianity than people may think. He then refutes points that he is racist, saying that he doesn’t, “believe in any form of discrimination or segregation,” and “the real religion of Islam doesn’t teach anyone to judge another human being by the color of his skin. The odd statement is used by the Muslim, to – uh, measure another man, is not the man’s color, but the man’s deeds. The man’s conscious behavior, the man’s intention. And when you use that measure – standard of measurement, or judgment, you never go wrong.”
“Malcom’s Theme” does not cite his death as the end, but as the beginning of a new era in the civil rights movement, closing the song by saying, “No more a man, but a seed. Which will come forth again. We’ll know him as a prince. Our own black shining prince who died. Because He loved us so.” This final verse of just Quinn, a baritone harmonizing with her and piano makes sure that the message “Malcom” is conveying is not lost in a busy instrumental.
This album is a rarity in the 2016 music scene for many reasons. First, there are few artists today who are even making jazz music anymore. Some of Kamasi’s contemporaries (Flying Lotus, Thundercat, and George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic) do create interesting modern jazz, but it often toes the line between jazz, instrumental hip hop and pure funk, and the distinction between those genres is becoming increasingly blurred. This is what makes The Epic such a standout when compared to albums like Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead. Kamasi’s album draws direct influence from not only the greats like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charles Mingus, but also latin-jazz and sounds reminiscent of Herbie Hancock. As well, this album’s length alone earns it the distinction of being called an epic. Clocking in at 173 minutes, 28 seconds split over three disks, it can be a daunting task to listen to this album in one sitting. But maybe most importantly, this album is proving to be many millennials’ first foray into jazz music. After his contributions to the arrangements and instrumentations on Kendrick Lamar’s popular 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly, Kamasi has received media attention from media outlets such as Pitchfork and NPR (National Public Radio). So when Kamasi released his own album a couple months later and it received the critical acclaim that it did, he, along with artists like Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus, brought a whole new slew of young people into the genre.
Some would argue that the album needs to be shortened a fair amount, that it could be easily cut down to one disk, and this is true in a sense. Three hours is a long time to devote to one album, and that may deter the average listener from picking it up. However, part of this album’s charm is absurdity. It is so out of place in today’s music scene by most standards. Even if you ignore the length of this album, not very many people outside of New York are even making jazz anymore, let alone a 35-year-old from Compton, California. This album delivers on its title; it truly is an epic. From the often hurried pace to the love interests to addressing huge topics like racism and religion, The Epic continues where Coltrane and Nina Simone left off.
 “Kamasi Washington NPR Interview.” NPR. N.p., 10 May 2015. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.