The Bigness of Kamasi Washington

|Moments of brilliance, moments of bombast and moments of madness give people a reason to talk about jazz, perhaps so they don’t have to listen to the music.|

Half listening to the radio, my full attention turned suddenly to a song I hadn’t heard before. After a couple of minutes, I guessed it must be from a new album from Kamasi Washington. Turns out there is a recent release from Washington, Heaven and Earth, that came out in June. Though relatively new to the scene as a leader, there is a lot of personality in Washington’s music. His sound is distinct, much more so than many other musicians with a larger jazz catalog.

There was tremendous hype, even internationally, surrounding the release of Washington’s 2015 album The Epic. I found it to be a huge, chaotic, sprawling and often frustrating work. Clocking in at almost 3-hours, the range of his music touched on everything, from old jazz standards to Debussy’s Claire de Lune, from free jazz to musically challenging sounds hard to classify. Whether you find his music exhilarating or exasperating, it demands attention. So, it was a surprise to read a review of Heaven and Earth in a mainstream jazz publication that sounded more like a critique of Washington than his new album.

Washington’s sensibilities are clearly on display with this new album.

Brash horns and choirs often fill curious corners of his music. In some ways, it is difficult to think that Washington even has a “sound” since the music stretches to include so many styles and motifs. And yet, there I was certain this song was by Washington and must be something new, rather than a song from his other post-Epic release, Throttle Elevator Music IV (which includes music recorded during the Epic sessions). Of course, he has a sound, a big one, and it is recognizable.

Yet the gist of the review article was a complaint that Washington wasn’t adding anything new to the “jazz canon.” There was, it claimed, no new insights being delivered, just variations on existing themes with the juxtaposition of straight ahead, free jazz and everything in between giving the impression of “new things.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but Washington’s jazz mash-ups are attention-getting because of their sprawling sounds. We do hear old things performed in new ways that sound interesting because of their often odd juxtapositions. I can’t speak to cannons – other than to say their sound might make an interesting punctuation in some of the more aggressive Washington recordings.

The Kamasi Washington Sound.

A comparison of Washington’s rendition of Cherokee with those of widely respected players provides for a striking example of his “sound.” Listen to versions of the Ray Noble jazz standard by sax players Charlie Parker in 1942 (which he remade into KoKo) and Stan Getz in 1960, or from a vocalist like Dee Dee Bridgewater in 1998. Nothing in Washington’s version sounds derivative that I can tell.

Then, right after you play Cherokee, listen to Washington’s Miss Understanding, also from The Epic, and the range of his musical vision is clearly on display. Seemingly, every song needs its own “sound” and Washington strives, and mostly succeeds, in putting a personal touch on every number. Even when that personal touch is at odds with other songs sitting in the same queue.

In a significant way, Kamasi Washington reminds me of Dizzy Gillespie.

Dizzy Gillespie grayscaleFor folks outside of the jazz orbit, the image of Dizzy embodied the spirit of jazz. The beret and goatee, the puffed-up cheeks, the boisterous laugh and welcoming personality. Yet even hardcore jazz fans can be challenged by some of his more aggressive music – “jeez, how does he get to a register that high? And why does he play so shrill for so long?” Salt Peanuts was important but is also an acquired taste. People talked about the man, not so much his music.

It now feels like for many Kamasi fills the role of what jazz should look like. A review of The Epic in The Economist and a more recent interview this summer in Monocle, heralded this new savior of jazz: The big man with the big hair and even bigger sound, facing the world head-on and coincidently plays jazz. But Washington’s music doesn’t get much discussion in these conversations. Moments of brilliance, moments of bombast and moments of madness give people a reason to talk about jazz, perhaps so they don’t have to listen to the music.

More Jazz-Notes on “Straight Ahead

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