‘Tis the season for jazz festivals, and anyone who tells you the genre is dead clearly isn’t looking hard enough. Sure, it’s now a niche in terms of sales, but there is no shortage of artists dedicated to sustaining and expanding the most creative musical movement of the last 100 years—whether it sounds like what you consider jazz or not, like the improvisational magic of Tanya Tagaq and her band.
And then there’s a superstar like rapper Kendrick Lamar, whose 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly—which has sold more than half a million copies so far—draws heavily on jazz. And not polite, cocktail-bar jazz that fits easily into a bumping 4/4 beat, either. Lamar uses jazz as music of struggle and expression and freedom. In order to do that, he called on Kamasi Washington, who grew up in the same neighbourhood, South Central L.A., that Lamar did.
Who is Kamasi Washington? This is the 32-year-old tenor saxphonist’s debut album. He’s been a sideman for everyone from Herbie Hancock to Snoop Dogg to Raphael Saadiq. He runs with Flying Lotus, who perhaps more than anyone is bringing a jazz sensibility to electronic music. They share a bassist, a man known only as Thundercat (who’s also from South Central, as is Washington’s entire band). But let’s run some numbers here. In addition to the core band—which involves two bassists, two drummers, two keyboardists and a trombonist, with Washington on tenor sax—this album has a 32-piece orchestra on it, and a 20-person choir. If you buy a physical copy, it’s a three-record set. It’s 172 minutes long. There are 17 songs. Epic? You bet. In this case, there is definitely strength in numbers.
Its most compelling moments are, of course, when the full cast in on display, and those are the tracks that will first convince you that this is something far beyond any jazz record you’re likely to have heard in recent memory. But three hours of that would be exhausting, of course. Washington’s consistently strong melodies provide a tether for casual listeners. Washington’s many moods involve a bit of swing, some sparse, delicate ballads, and the soothing presence of traditional jazz vocalist Patrice Quinn on several tracks. Naturally, he lets every member of his band stretch out considerably—notably organist Brandon Coleman on “Isabelle” and a stunning bowed-bass solo on “Miss Understanding” by Miles Mosley. On “Re Run Home,” Coleman breaks out his wah-pedal and his clavinet, and with the help of full percussion section, drives a 14-minute jazz-funk excursion that is likely your best gateway drug to reveal the rest of this glorious world of sound.
Listeners might be led in the door by Washington’s more famous employers, but Washington is second-fiddle to no one. If you’re the kind of jazz appreciator who only buys one modern jazz album every year (or decade), well, this would be the one.
Download: “Re Run Home,” “Miss Understanding,” “Changing of the Guard”