Kamasi Washington’s unlikely, yet meteoric rise to prominence in the music industry has been an interesting journey to follow. Working with Steven Ellison (AKA Flying Lotus), Kendrick Lamar, Terrace Martin and Robert Glasper brought the West Coast tenor sax player into the limelight thanks to his dexterous and energetic performances on Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead! (2014) and Kendrick Lamar’s masterwork, To Pimp a Butterfly (2015). Ellison clearly saw something in Washington, as the producer offered to release the saxophonist’s debut record – a three hour long, triple album of original jazz tunes called The Epic (2015) – on his label, Brainfeeder Records. The buzz around The Epic is what really launched Washington’s career, and solidified his image, at least according to the music press, as the highly spiritual saviour of jazz, the contemporary reincarnation of Coltrane and Sun Ra, and the token jazz musician, covered by every pop music publication under the sun.
Unfortunately for those of us who are invested in the future of jazz, this wasn’t the monumental piece of good news we were waiting for. Kamasi Washington’s commercial success has not had a positive effect on the genre or the industry, and we should be concerned over the number of worrying trends, popularised in the last few years by Washington, which have the potential to be genuinely harmful to the commercial future of jazz.
The biggest problem with Washington’s influence, and particularly with the promotional process for his albums, is the lack of easily available personnel lists. Jazz has always thrived based on an ability to listen to an album, pick out the individual musicians that one enjoys the performances of, and then track down their other projects, thus expanding the communal musical web on which the genre flourishes. Washington has never released an album where it has been even remotely easy to access the names of the numerous other musicians that fill out the sound of his music. The Epic was a big record in more than its run-time. It had a lot of very talented musicians on it, of whom very few people were able to tell you the names.
Former The Bad Plus pianist, Ethan Iverson, outlined this problem quite succinctly back in 2015, when the buzz around The Epic was reaching fever pitch:
“Africa/Brass lurks in the background of any sort of large group Afrocentric jazz featuring modal chords and vamps. The latest take is getting a lot of attention: Kamasi Washington’s The Epic.”
Indeed, the very first thing we hear at the top of the first tune, ‘Change of the Guard’, is essentially a McCoy Tyner quote. This pianist also gets the first solo. It’s burning in full post-McCoy style. Nice work.
Who is the pianist?
Talk about attribution problems! I’ve seen a lot of press about The Epic, but the other musicians’ names are not usually mentioned.
When I bought the album on iTunes, there was no digital booklet. No personnel given.
Who’s the piano player?”
As it turns out, that piano player is a young, West Coast musician named Cameron Graves, or at least that’s the assumption that people have made following Graves’ touring stint, with Washington and his band following The Epic’s release, playing piano on that tune.
Given all the press and heaps of praise Washington’s work has been getting over the last three years, it seems only right that the talented musicians, whose contributions shaped the sound of the work that has been so universally acclaimed, get some name recognition for their performances. Washington has become an almost mythical figure for this so called miraculous jazz revival of late, so why, now that he’s become such a widely recognised name (and aesthetic, but more on that later), is he not insisting that his band get to share some of the limelight? Like Iverson said three years ago:
“Turn up the light on Kamasi’s sidemen. There’s enough love to go around.”
Honestly, this is a matter of responsibility. Washington is the biggest name in jazz right now – big enough that he’s managed to encroach on airtime and column inches reserved for the big names in hip-hop and pop music. This would be exciting if not for the fact that jazz, as a genre, survives on the ability of audiences to expand their listening pool based on hearing performances by new musicians on albums they already like, and being able to easily find more music by those people. The way things are going, it feels like Washington is trying to ensure he’s the only name in West Coast jazz right now, and that is incredibly harmful to the natural jazz ecosystem.
There’s also another significant issue at play here, and this is where I start to get conflicted, because I love The Epic. The triple album is one of my favourites of the last few years, and its one that I return to often because of (in this order – that’s important to note) its jagged, raw melodies, the genuine chemistry of Washington’s sizable band, and the ethereal, cosmic aesthetic. That aesthetic, while being something I really appreciate about the album, is very appealing window dressing for the core content of the record. Unfortunately, the spacey production, otherworldly choir vocals and strings, and the general interstellar vibe of it all, has been the element to which those who talk and write about Washington’s work have latched onto the most fervently (cue comparison upon comparison to Sun Ra and the later works of John Coltrane), to the point where it is no longer simply an aesthetic, but a brand; a lifestyle.
Again, this would not be a problem if not for Washington’s ubiquity. Those musicians trying to break into the new jazz mainstream are now required to put on the same faux spiritual, robed, staff-wielding façade as Washington, creating a quasi-hierarchy of spirituality in jazz. To be perfectly honest, I don’t really blame this on Washington, and I really don’t think he’s trying to have this effect on the genre. The problem is that he’s being used by those who write about jazz and who promote and organise gigs, as a spiritual benchmark for what is and isn’t worth paying attention to, which again, prevents the genre from expanding, commercially and progressing, creatively.
With a new album, Heaven and Earth, from Washington on the way, I can only hope that he does release a personnel list for the record before its release in June. He owes that to his collaborators. As for the spirituality problem, the future of that issue lies in the hands of journalists and promoters. I will only say this on the matter: there is no problem with shining a light on a certain spiritual aesthetic in certain areas of the jazz world, but there’s plenty of other music out there worth talking about, that doesn’t deserve to be disqualified from discussion, simply for a lack of adherence to a superficial trend.