A Hip-Hop Head Learns to Love Jazz Through Kamasi Washington's "The Epic"

TPAB leads a hip-hop head to Kamasi Washington and one of the most daring albums of the year.
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I’m more Al Bundy than Al Jezeera. More N.W.A than NPR. The amount of times I’ve eaten cereal in my boxers has to be a world record and the only piece of art I’ve ever bought was a print of a Van Gogh I hung up to impress any girls I somehow managed to bring back to my college dorm.

I’m not cultured.

Still, from time to time I like to check out art, and meandering through art museums makes me feel smarter but also ignorant. I have a few favorites - Monet is the GOAT and Goya is raw as fuck - but for the most part I’m in the dark when it comes to history, technique and style. StilI, I can look at a piece of art and feel something without having any idea how it was made, when it was made or why it was made.

It’s the same with jazz.

For most of my life, Miles Davis was just a guy that old lady in Billy Madison mentioned. I’ve always wanted to learn more about jazz, but truthfully, it’s hard to start from scratch. I’d like to think I know a lot about hip-hop, but it took years of listening, years of writing, years of staying up until 4:30 AM trying to find a producer for me to feel even somewhat certified to make assertions about hip-hop. I simply haven't had the same hours to devote to jazz and as a result I’ve always felt passive, like a spectator, and while maybe as a music blogger I should remain saddled atop my high horse, I’ve come to realize that revealing my ignorance is the key to ending it.

A few months ago, Kamasi Washington was just a name on To Pimp A Butterfly to me. I knew him strictly as that saxophonist on “U,” but in my drive to learn more about jazz I decided to delve into his music and now he’s opening my eyes to a whole new world. Washington’s three hour long album, The Epic, is just that - epic. After seeing him in theTo Pimp A Butterfly credits, after hearing his name from Josef “LoveDragon” Leimberg and seeing he was associated with Thundercat and Flying Lotus, I was curious enough to check out the project and just a few minutes into the opening track, “Changing Of The Guard,” I was floored. I knew what I was hearing was important and artfully constructed, but I just didn’t know why. This is a jazz album?

To me jazz has always been very light and airy; there’s a lot of open sonic space (take this for example). The Epic, though, follows a sinuous, ever-changing path. There are softer moments like “Seven Prayers,” but there’s also orchestras, organs, vocalists (except for Ella Fitzgerald I didn’t even really know jazz utilized vocalists) and Kamasi seemingly breaking any sort structure in favor of absolutely whaling away on the sax. Sometimes, with efforts that run anywhere between six and fifteen minutes long, you can hear them all on one song.

I’ve felt out of place and passive when listening to jazz, but I’ve never felt small. The Epic made me small, like standing at the base of a skyscraper and looking up. It may not be that revolutionary in the grand scheme of things - maybe that’s a style any avid jazz listener would recognize - but for me it certainly was. But while the album felt beyond my comprehension it still gave me goosebumps like when I hear a great soul-flip. It was a new experience, but it evoked all too familiar feelings. If anything, I think that makes this album even more impressive. The Epic cuts through everything else and connects on a more primal, personal level. For me to have no idea what I’m listening to yet still feel so passionately about it speaks volumes to Washington's artistry.

So I actually tracked him down and hopped on the phone in an effort to learn more, and scary as it was, I really owned my ignorance with the man whose project I was discussing, and luckily he was graciously willing to teach me. I learned he recorded over three terabytes of music. I learned that he improvised most of his material with his regular band, which includes the likes Thundercat on bass and Brandon Coleman on keys, and he wrote the orchestra sections himself. I learned that “Claire De Lune” (my personal favorite track) is a cover of a Debussy composition; I learned who Debussy was. After talking with him, I went back to listen, expecting to have a much better grasp on the music, but I still felt small. I know more about how he made it and it’s still a marvel to me. I think that’s the goal of The Epic; to challenge, to be daunting, but to connect on some deeper, ultimately more powerful level.

Someone with expertise in jazz will likely listen to this album completely differently, but that’s not the review I can write. It feels weird writing about an album I don’t quite understand; at least with hip-hop I have some context. But I believe that revealing my learning process is the right move, not just because I’m allergic to stunting, but because I’m sure many of you are in my boat.  I listen to a lot of hip-hop, I’m paid to, and I’m sure you listen to a bunch too; you found DJBooth after all. We will collectively listen to a ton of music together this year, but how much of it truly gets outside your comfort zone? Kamasi Washington gives a hip-hop head like an opportunity to try something completely new and it’s a feeling I haven’t felt in a long long time. How often are you really challenged by music?

I may not know jazz from a hole in the wall, but I know when I’m hearing something jarring, daring, and radically different and that’s what The Epic is. It might not end up as your favorite, but The Epic is one of the most original, diverse, and awe-inspiring endeavors I've heard this year. Beyond genres, beyond history, isn’t the ultimate point of music to make you feel something? So whether you are a jazz scholar or eat cereal in your boxers, if you’re looking to feel something, to be challenged, Kamasi Washington’s is a must listen.  

[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]

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