by Max Vinetz
In this contemporary jazz epic, Kamasi Washington brings Miles Coltrane, Mahler, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat along for the journey.
You may have heard him before, but you probably haven’t heard of him. Meet Kamasi Washington, the man whose tenor saxophone permeated the world on Kendrick Lamar’s latest release, To Pimp A Butterfly. A Los Angeles native, 34 year-old Washington grew up alongside producer Flying Lotus (Steven Ellison), crossover bassist Thundercat (Stephen Bruner), and eventually toured separately with Snoop Dogg and Raphael Saadiq.
In May 2015, however, Washington released a work of his own: The Epic. This colossal 172-minute triple-disc set, released on Flying Lotus’s record label Brainfeeder, entered at #5 on the Billboard jazz charts and debuted at #1 on iTunes jazz charts in the US, Canada, Australia, Russia, and UK—yet it’s unlike any other jazz record. Washington’s 10-piece band, The Next Step, which consists of two bassists, two drummers, two keyboards, three horns, and a vocalist, is backed by a 32-piece string orchestra and a 20-voice choir. The most powerful tune on the album is the opening track, “Change of the Guard,” and it contains an excellent combination of sounds from “then” and “now.” By combining an uptempo swing with unique instrumentation and cinematic production elements, this bold tune is alluring, ideal for the veteran and the new jazz listener alike.
Throughout the titanic opening of “Change of the Guard” on The Epic, you can see the faint image of John Coltrane standing in the background. Pianist Cameron Graves’ stacked-fourth piano voicings evoke the style of McCoy Tyner and the core sound of John Coltrane’s “Classic quartet,” while the rhythmic drive refers to earlier Coltrane hits like “Impressions.” Graves launches the tune with a syncopated chordal pattern that immediately conjures the modal spirit of the 1960s. Halfway through the brief piano introduction, drummer Tony Austin lays down a quiet drumroll that quickly crescendos into a loud rimshot on the downbeat of the eighth bar, signaling a call to the horn section. Washington and the other horns join together and blast an ardent horn melody that takes the listener back to 1965.
Yet it doesn’t feel like 1965. Washington takes a structure from the past and builds on it, giving modal jazz a power that was unattainable half a century ago. The immaculate production quality gives “Change of the Guard” a tremendous, all-encompassing force. Fat and crisp snare hits line up with the piano. The full-bodied basses support the weight of the ensemble. The horns are warm and saturated. The orchestra fades in beneath the band, becoming audible during the instrumental break before the first solo. The choir enters beneath the melody and gradually crescendos while creating a grand counter-melody that weaves around the horn section’s melodic contour. “Change of the Guard” takes you to a jazz club in midtown Manhattan, except there’s an orchestra squeezed behind the bar and a choir standing offstage. You’re enveloped in an ocean of aahs and strings, and while the sheer weight of the ensemble is initially overwhelming, Washington’s band makes that water seem weightless. You don’t want to leave anytime soon.
As the first soloist, Graves initiates the upward ascent. His crystalline sound rises—tempered, clear, controlled. You initially hear the concise and elegant lines of Bill Evans, but that sound drifts away, diverging, destabilizing the universal sense of time. Graves drops sequences of tripleted-16th notes, displaying mastery of his instrument. As the solo grows, he ascends in register and rhythmic intensity. The solo peaks as Graves repeatedly hammers a high D while Austin mimics the piano rhythm on the snare drum, clouding the meter. The orchestra and choir rise and fall once more, overshadowing the piano, indicating a transition to the next soloist, and to a different bassist.
With a simple three-note line, trumpeter Igmar Thomas pierces the cloud of synthesizers, voices and strings, backed by the thumping low end of Thundercat’s iconic 6-stringed bass and a hip-hop drumbeat. The beginning of Thomas’s solo grows organically, as he repeats the same rhythmic figure, gradually adding notes to the melody’s tail. Thomas patiently waits to unleash the full force of his horn until the second B section of the piece and riffs around Miles’s “Nardis” in the meantime. But man, the second B comes and Thomas blasts his horn towards the sky, backed by two bassists, two keyboardists, the choir, and a steady swinging drummer that lets the trumpet soar. Thomas subsides. The instrumental break is back, and this time, everyone steps aside for the long-awaited entrance of Kamasi Washington himself.
A slowly trilling tenor saxophone fades in and out, decorated by cymbal pops and pings and sustained strings. It’s just sax, bass, and drums now. Washington takes his time. Snare and organ stabs push the solo forward. All instruments slowly enter, one after another. Washington ascends. The lines are growing, the space between notes decreasing. The band begins to diverge, each player entering his own world. Three steps forward, one step back. Time is falling apart. Rhythms clashing, notes splitting, basses walking, Washington pushes harder and harder and harder.
Washington’s sax blasts a piercing multiphonic into the sky while Tony Austin’s driving swing crescendos and dissolves into an earth-rumbling, glorious chaos that temporarily illuminates the spirits of Miles and Coltrane. In this moment, Washington and his band show us why jazz is magical: when everything seems to deteriorate past the point of no return, there’s a moment of convergence. The band instantaneously snaps back, an effect equivalent to smashing two tectonic plates together. From here, we experience the horns’ melody one more time, and by the end, we’re walking on solid ground.
Yet the end takes a twist. Rather than ending on a powerful E minor chord, the edge melts into synth pads, reverberating piano, and processed basses that decompose three-dimensionally through space. We’re taken from a packed jazz club in Manhattan to a fantasy-like field of spirits and winds. It is Washington’s ability to create such vivid and complex sound-worlds of opposite extremes that is the essence of the power of “Change of the Guard.”