Comprising 17 tracks, three discs and a three-hour run time, Kamasi Washington’s The Epic certainly lives up to its title. Grandiose in every respect, the music is performed by a 10-piece band augmented by a full orchestra and a choir. The saxophonist, who’s played on albums by Stanley Clarke, George Duke and Kenny Burrell, is among a group of Los Angeles-based artists whose work blends jazz, electronic music, funk and hip-hop into an amorphous, swirling sound that’s miles deep and breathtakingly ambitious at times.
As an instrumentalist, Washington is clearly a Pharoah Sanders acolyte — he’ll chew on a few notes like a mantra, then erupt in fierce shrieks. Pianist Cameron Graves, who delivers the set’s first solo, comes across as a McCoy Tyner disciple, but with Don Pullen’s fervor. Behind him, the choir sings wordlessly. On “Miss Understanding,” trumpeter Igmar Thomas blares rippling, Freddie Hubbard-like upper-register runs, while trombonist Ryan Porter jumps first from the gate on “Leroy and Lanisha.”
Despite side trips into funk, reggae and R&B, The Epic is, at its core, a spiritual-jazz album. Had Impulse Records given Sanders the budget for an orchestra and choir in 1972, he might have come up with something like this. Songs are built on throbbing, vamping bass lines, played on electric and acoustic instruments simultaneously, and they continue at great length. The first piece, “Change of the Guard,” runs longer than 12 minutes, which isn’t unusual.
When the music moves closer to R&B, it recalls the instrumentals that occasionally popped up on Earth, Wind & Fire albums. There are some surprises, too, like a reggae-fied version of the standard “Cherokee,” sung by Patrice Quinn. The singer’s featured on multiple tracks, not always to great effect, as the lyrics get pretty hokey at times. While there’s too much material here for the average, time-pressed listener to absorb in one shot, the playing is of high enough quality that serious jazz fans will eventually make their way through all three discs and be very happy they did. —Phil Freeman