I spent two weeks of the summer of ’15 from hospital to hospital to doctor to doctor and staying at home in between due to a bacterial virus whose Latin name I didn’t bother writing down or memorizing and because the lumbar puncture that Toronto General Hospital gave me led to a complication that resulted in me having to lie supine on my bed for another three days after my body finally kicked it out. (Have you ever laid on your back for 3 days? It’s fucking awful, especially if you’re used to sleeping in fetal position.) It was one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had, and I remember being physically angry afterwards at the time wasted and the sudden intense realization of my own mortality and how I missed my first MBA class so I’d have to take it separately in a different semester. So angry, in fact, that I – me – turned to Death Grips, whose MC yells a lot, so I assumed that I could finally connect. Awful mistake; I came out angrier at the waste of time.
During those two weeks, I listened mostly to Sufjan Stevens’ new record and this one (and every single Mahler symphony); the former grew on me, and the latter – unexpectedly – grew off. This was a record that I participated in the pre-release/pre-review hype, going on literally nothing but the gorgeous cover, title, label (Brainfeeder) and the prospect of having 3 hours’ worth of professionally played jazz. I went so far as to shoot Kamasi Washington three separate Twitter shout-outs in the span of minutes as I listened to it for the first time, proclaiming this the Bitches Brew of the new decade (which it might be, and though there are shades of jazz fusion throughout thanks to the electric keyboards (ie. “Final Thought”) and synth shades (ie. “The Message”) and polyrhythms (ie. “Re Run Home”) and electric bass (ie. “The Magnificent 7”), it was a comparison born out of length); proclaiming that this was the best jazz album in decades (it isn’t); proclaiming that this was the best album of the year (it isn’t). (He sent back one or two thank you’s.)
It’s clear, stepping back, that half of the album’s appeal – or, more specifically, why it was hyped during its release and why it was the only jazz album that found its way on every year-end list by publications that barely have anything to do with jazz – is the promise of the title in its length – you know, the gimmick. (Speaking of gimmicks; remember Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s The Case of the 3 Sided Dream in Audio Color, which was a triple-LP of jazz for the sake of being a triple-LP, but was about twice this album?) Question: how epic this would have been had it only been one hour? Answer: not epic at all, but better. The other half of this album’s appeal is detailed by Popmatters’ Will Layman:
“When a jazz artist receives publicity and gets acclaimed in the larger culture, it’s almost always because he has been involved in a high profile recording outside of jazz. When Wynton Marsalis rose to fame in the ‘80s, making magazine covers and being touted as some kind of jazz savior, it was not just because he was reviving post bebop jazz with astonishing trumpet technique. Nope. It was because the same year that Wynton Marsalis (his debut on major label Columbia Records) won a jazz Grammy, Marsalis also won a Grammy for classical music. The wunderkind had skills! Herbie Hancock has 14 Grammys and an Oscar, but not one of them preceded his proto-hip hop hit, “Rockit”.
That doesn’t make Marsalis or Hancock (or Esperanza Spalding or Norah Jones) less than excellent. But this is how it works in the US. Jazz musicians get a big boost if they are seen as part of the non-jazz culture. Washington got hype in 2015 because he was a vital part of the year’s biggest and most ambitious non-jazz album: Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which was recently nominated for 11 Grammys. (Washington wrote the string arrangements for To Pimp a Butterfly, and was part of a cadre of great California/Los Angeles jazz players to participate, including trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusere, pianist Robert Glasper, producer Terrace Martin, and bassist Thundercat.)”
That being said, it is professionally played such that it’s hard to accuse enough of these songs as filler; for evidence, check out the solos in “The Magnificent 7” (the album’s best song; especially the 3-minute piano solo that starts at the 5:50 mark) or the drum solos in “The Message” (and how they help make it seem like the rest of the band are sprinting towards their climax, though they’re probably not increasing in speed).
And, it is professionally produced.
And, it is stylistically variant enough in the way most multi-disc albums are: the aforementioned jazz fusion, spiritual jazz, lyrically informed vocal jazz.
And yet: not nearly enough. Kamasi Washington himself lacks identity; his solos are predictable in the way he always leans on John Coltrane’s signature style but sans intensity and all that comes with (“Historic repetition” indeed); it’s incredibly telling about the band that one of the most memorable themes they come up is the one they nick from Debussy (“Clair de Lune,” a highlight). Meanwhile, the production of the album is to a fault: practically every song has a glossy-cinematic sheen covering it such that at its worst, it indulges in melodrama and at its best, it fades into the background because very little catches fire. Worst example: check out the yearning tone that Kamasi Washington manages on his solo of “Askim” around the 5:50 mark, and how it completely off-set when he goes into John Coltrane mode and the backing vocals come swooping in like someone pressed a button. And finally: it’s not nearly varied enough to warrant three discs.
Still: it helped me through one of the tougher times of my life. And for all its flaws, I can’t help but wonder where Washington will go next, especially now that he’s smacked everyone to paying attention.