Kamasi Washington

Pitchfork Top Fifty Albums 2015: Number Ten


I like music.  I don’t think that sentence needs an adjective.

If you are a musical omnivore one thing you notice is that the expectations of your fellow diners can sometimes change.  Some people who like jazz music seem to like it the same way that some wine drinkers like their wine: with plenty of potential for snobbery.  I drink wine and listen to jazz in the same way: if I like it then I call it good.

Kamasi Washington’s The Epic is good.  If it were a glass of wine I would have taken a sip then paused and sort of looked at the glass of wine askance with a facial expression that encapsulated the thought: “woah, that is really good wine, I was not expecting that.”  Firstly, it is a really big bottle of wine (yes, I am going to ride this image into the ground), and in my experience huge bottles and casks are not noted for their quality.  This album is three hours long.  Every musical snob knows that a double LP is usually a mistake, but a triple?  Secondly, it is a wine that is out fashion and therefore sets a new trend.  It’s like intending to drink Black Tower ironically and discovering its suddenly become great in some kind of weird  way.  How does a full choir and Coltrane make sense?  Well, it does.

You notice I said Coltrane.  This is my one reference.  I don’t have the ability to analyse music beyond superficial things.  When people do the “notes of blackberry” shit with their wine tasting I am – like most people – irritated as hell, and a bit jealous.  “I wish,” I think, “I could appreciate something that much”.  In jazz there is this richer appreciation going on that I cannot do.  I wish I could do it, because when someone explains something in a song to me it really makes me enjoy it more.  Cathy has a music degree, and a great ear, and she can do this.  She can tell me why Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy is cool, or about the unusual time register of Money by Pink Floyd.  She can also explain counterpoint, but that’s harder and not as immediately useful as a party trick to drop into conversation and impress friends.

In Japan Cathy worked with a guy who played something like the trombone and was a jazz musician.  He had the most amazing name (he probably still does) which I have now forgotten but was something like Drednal.  Anyway I remember talking to him one day about jazz and Kind of Blue (I just started an innocent conversation and ended up in a rip and way out of my depth).  Drednal was talking about how Adderley’s work on that album was way better than Coltrane’s.  This struck me as an interesting thing to say, and because he wasn’t being pretentious about it he may well be right.  But then, what would I know.  I’ve listened to Kind of Blue many times and couldn’t tell you when it’s Coltrane and when it’s Adderley, and even if I knew that I couldn’t tell which was more interesting musically.  I regret that.  But music is very forgiving and open.  I cannot understand all those levels, but I can still enjoy the music.

Anyway, I mentioned Coltrane because parts of The Epic remind me of his style later on.  I don’t know if Washington does circular breathing or not, but there are lots of sections of this album where his solos are surging, climbing, tumbling over themselves runs that go on and on and on over an open, cymbal drum sound, and a bass that sounds like a spider skittering over a hot tin roof.  In that on and on-ness there comes a kind of spiritualism, like I feel smaller and smaller against the vast scape of sound that is unspooling out of the end of the saxophone preacher’s mouth.  Which is why the album cover looks right.

Ornette Coleman.  I mention him because I was sorting though piles of accumulated stuff in the basement the other day, and found the body of a violin a friend gave me as a parting gift/shot from my last school.  He had written on it a few reminders of an Ornette Coleman concert we had both seen.  I loved the concert and he hated it.  Although I loved it there was a truly awful middle section where Ornette proved he couldn’t play the violin.  It was fucking awful (with notes of plum and shavings of oak).  I think the main thing this concert proved to me is that you can play the same thing to one audience and get a huge range of experiences back.  Much like being religious, it’s fine so long as you don’t try and eviscerate everyone who has a different experience of whatever it is from you.

So I suppose I would say, a three hour jazz album might not sound like your glass of wine, but it is definitely worth listening to.  Finally, I would like to thank you for enduring the jazz and wine cliche for as long as you have if only because when I have this mental image myself I imagine someone pouring red  wine in my ear while I lie down and this is a really unpleasant imaginary sensation.

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

4 thoughts on “Kamasi Washington”

  1. Yeah, I know what you mean. Not “getting” music technically doesn’t really bother me, but when someone points something out I enjoy it. I always respond to the music emotionally. You should listen to The Epic. I’d be interested to hear what you thought about it.

  2. I know nothing about visual art but I love to go into a gallery and make my own quick assumptions about things. My wife claims to be tone deaf (I’ve proven she is not) but has a gift for picking good (and bad) music. I don’t really go with the idea that understanding the structure necesarily makes your listening (or viewing) experience on a higher level. I had a music degree (I say ‘had’ because it must be past the use by date) and when I do a gig my ‘tone deaf’ wife is always the person I go to for an honest appraisal of how it went. JY, except for being totally bloody wrong about the quality of the Ornette Coleman concert, yours are another set of very well tuned ears that I would always trust.

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