Listening to ‘The Epic’ by Kamasi Washington

The Epic has been a long time coming. I’ve seen it in record shops but never quite mustered up the courage for a three-disc, thirty-quid vinyl. In the end, my repeated picking it up, looking longingly at it, then returning it wistfully to the K section of the racks must have paid off. Come my birthday, my girlfriend hands me a square brick and tells me to unwrap it.

The Epic weighs a ton. A three-disc box-set fully-hyphenated piece of art, in which you have to extract all three from their box in order to listen to any of them. Once you’ve done that, you’re in for the long haul, embarking on a marathon of crash cymbals, choirs and Kamasi.

Looking at the tracklisting, my first urge is to skip ahead to “Clair de Lune,” but that’s like starting on the third book of a Tolkien epic. There’s fourteen-minute songs. There’s a sixteen-minute song. The Epic is its own series of epics. There’s earworms you want to go back and listen to again, but when you’re challenging The Epic, the only way is up. After all, mountain-climbers don’t go back and climb bits again just because they got the rocks stuck in their head, do they? Skipping through tracks is for when you’re on Spotify. There’s not a threat of an ad here, not another million “songs you might like” two clicks away. In this moment, The Epic is all that exists.

At times Kamasi and his band play with so much sound that it’s mad experimental jazz. At other times they play so much, and so fast, that it could be punk rock. I start to think they’re trying to break the place apart from inside the speakers, setting up huge auditory hillsides where battles rage for minutes. 

I love his album Harmony of Difference and know every note and transition. The Epic is a longer, more epic, Harmony of Difference, complete with the soaring vocals that took Harmony to another level. It makes you wonder how much has actually been composed and how much is made up on the spot. Am I listening to the world’s most prominent improv jazz band, who get up on a stage and set up a jazz demolition squad for an hour?

I started The Epic late last night, and am on track to finish it within twenty-four hours. If it takes longer, that’s cool too. Leftover Kamasi Washington is like pizza for breakfast.

I don’t want to disrespect the other tracks on the way to “Clair de Lune.” You wouldn’t trample down a field of sunflowers just to get to the tallest one in the middle. But it’s the most familiar, and as such lulls you into a fog of recognition that breeds memories. Yet Kamasi does very different things with it than Claude Debussy did. There’s the piano again, familiar yet alien, the reflections of keys on the surface of water. I feel what I feel when I’m listening to really beautiful music: that I’m floating in a river, absolved of any physical form. I am the river and under my surface are the reflections of thousands of stars far above. Following “Clair de Lune,” there’s “Malcolm’s Theme,” an ode to Malcolm X featuring his powerful antiracist speech from the Ford Auditorium in Detroit in 1965.

The last song, “The Message”, threatens to break the whole room in two: the final battle of The Epic. As the song’s onslaught settles to piano, percussion and drums, a siren starts up from the busy road outside, then a retaliating drum solo from Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner, the two drummers. It’s Kamasi Washington against the world, and in this flat, there will only be one winner. Light more incense, pour another drink – the record’s not even over and I know I’ve got to play it again.

The looming weekend is the perfect opportunity – perhaps I’ll tackle The Epic back-to-back, like a climber tackling the world’s highest peaks in a day. In the meantime, there’s only so much that reading about this album will tell you. To experience the highs, you need to hear them. If you like your jazz unrestrained and jaw-dropping in intensity, it might be time to lace up your boots and take on The Epic yourself.

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