In response to the strong showing of Kamasi Washington’s The Epic, a three-CD jazz expression of what might be companion sentiments to Kendrick Lamar’s to pimp a butterfly, a bit of controversy has emerged among music wags regarding whether a) Washington’s project deserves the rankings it’s getting, and b) he really ranks as a jazzman. Rather than be a curmudgeonly old fart shooting my mouth off after a listen and a half, I decided to give it two-and-a-half more listens–it takes up an afternoon, folks–sandwiching each disk between past jazz projects that have similarities with the project’s design. Obviously, it’s sprawling; its inclusion of human voices (sometimes in light chorus) and Washington’s touching at the edges of a Pharoah Sanders-like cry signal that it might be about the endless incidents of black men being shot dead in the street; its cast of players (and Washington’s appearance on to pimp a butterfly) (and its ground zero being Central L. A., long an influential cultural nexus of black America and the classroom turf of Horace Tapscott) could indicate that the record is a statement about community. Here are the records I used in my listening experiments, and my thoughts, for what they are worth (scores given from the ear-brain-gut obstacle course out of 10):
The Sonny Criss Orchestra/SONNY’S DREAM – BIRTH OF THE NEW COOL – 10 – Truly, one of the most underrated records of the late ’60s. Great blowing by alto man Criss, driving and inventive arrangements and compositions by Horace Tapscott (see above, and note subtitle), and some interesting nonverbal social commentary, the most striking in solidarity with Native Americans. Should be a part of every jazz aficionado’s collection.
Booker Ervin/BOOKER ‘N’ BRASS – 9.5 – I have been binge-listening to Denison, Texas’ finest tenor saxophonist this week, and, of the six records or so of his I’ve played (a couple multiple times), this has been the shining star. Nuthin’ fancy: Ervin in front of a powerful orchestra, wailing away on pieces like “Harlem Nocturne” and “Do You Know What It Means (To Miss New Orleans)?” Those selections might not fill you with excitement, but if you want to understand the term “Texas tenor” you’ll want to seek it out. Booker stepped on a rainbow far too soon at 39 years.
Dexter Gordon/MORE THAN YOU KNOW – 9.1 – Like THE EPIC, this album not ineffectively bolsters its star with strings, orchestrations, and occasional vocals. Unlike THE EPIC, the star is consistently inventing, in a wry, knowing, allusive flow of notes that could only emanate from Long Tall Dexter. Also, it’s clear HE’S the show, though I suppose Washington may have intended to be more of a team player on his record.
Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy/CORNELL ’64 – 10 – If you haven’t heard this amazing but oh-so-short-lived band at length, and you like powerful music, sorry–you may not have fully lived. Tenor isn’t the show, though Clifford Jordan plays fine: it’s Dolphy’s scintillating tripartite inventions on alto, bass clarinet, and flute, Jaki Byard’s shape-shifting piano (which kicks things off with the rollicking “ATFW”–that’s short for “Art Tatum Fats Waller”), the leader’s muscular bass, inspiring, funny, and exciting vocal encouragements–the recording is very intimate, but the playing and exhorting are explosive–and the repertoire, a mix of addictive Mingus compositions the band had become deeply invested in, nods to Ellington/Strayhorn and Waller, and a post-St. Pat’s “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” (a March 18th show). To have been there. This band was ALIVE on stage.
David Murray/SOUTH OF THE BORDER – 9 – Just prior to hitting middle-age, I overdosed so much on Murray’s great run of mid-’80s-to-early-’90s recordings that I eventually had to wean myself off of them and regard them as fine wine for special occasions. Complicating that is his habit–slowed a bit recently–of churning out pretty powerful and often conceptually different records at a dizzying pace. This 1995 recording features the tenor giant surrounded by a large orchestra of the last quarter-century’s greatest players, conducted by the late great Butch Morris to put a Latin/Spanish tinge on covers like Sonny Rollins’ “St Thomas,” future standard repertoire (I’m betting) like Wayne Francis’ “Calle Estrella,” and Murray’s on durable, flexible “Flowers for Albert.” One to turn up. LOUD.
Hannibal Peterson/CHILDREN OF THE FIRE – 10 – Like Washington’s record (in part), Peterson’s suite is a response to violence and an attempt at reconciliation–in this case, the children who became collateral damage of the war in Vietnam. One of jazz’s greatest statements about that time, criminally underrecognized, and really, really, really good. Peterson’s on trumpet, Richard Davis is on bass, David Amram’s the arranger, and poetry and voices deepen rather than distract from the message. For more on Vietnam from jazz musicians, look into the work of Billy Bang and Leroy Jenkins.
Pharoah Sanders/TAUHID – 8.8 – Washington’s playing recalls Sanders, though Kamasi doesn’t quite ever enter the all-out scream zone that is/was (?) Pharoah’s domain. On this late ’60s recording, Sanders had something similar to say, and a secret weapon on guitar named Sonny Sharrock to help me get it across. Sharrock’s wellings and wailings at the record’s opening make it all worth it.
Kamasi Washington/THE EPIC – 8.3 – That’s a high score for three discs’ worth of studio recordings of tenor-driven “Compton jazz” with occasional vocals and chorale. Kamasi needs to figure out a more distinct and consistently inventive way to say what’s on his mind (something damned important), but some hard r&b in the middle of disc two and bassist Thundercat’s submarine pulse have gotten me through three full listenings without pain. I will return to it.