Pop music and jazz haven’t been on speaking terms for a long time. Just the mere mention of “jazz” can seem alienating for those who aren’t already conditioned to the sounds of improvisation, polytonality or, god forbid, instrumental music. And that’s perfectly understandable—it’s been a long time since jazz has played more than a walk-on role on pop music, be it mainstream or underground.
Understand that when I’m talking about jazz, I don’t mean standards-heavy vocal jazz. Diana Krall and Michael Bublé CDs are still staring you down at Starbucks registers, and still sell respectably. Those are basically pop records, and pleasant, harmless ones at that. And you might also still see copies of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue—the best-selling jazz album of all time at 4 million copies—on those same racks. But that was released in 1959, several decades before millennial audiences were even born. Don’t get me wrong, that album should be in everyone’s collection, but keep moving down the list of best-selling jazz albums of all-time (Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, Louis Armstrong’s Hello, Dolly!), and you’ll find that the only Gold-selling non-compilation record of the past 10 years is Herbie Hancock’s Possibilities. And not only is it an album by a legacy artist, but one that features vocal contributions by Sting, John Mayer, Christina Aguilera and Annie Lennox.
Something peculiar happened two weeks ago in the world of jazz, however. Kamasi Washington‘s The Epic debuted at number 6 on the Billboard Heatseeker charts. It’s maybe not so prominent place for a record to land that it’s a groundbreaker, but it is an auspicious one. Particularly for a jazz album, and one that owes its richly layered ambiance to the avant garde sensibilities of Pharoah Sanders or late-period John Coltrane. This is also especially noteworthy for a triple-album, spanning just under three hours long. If the album has long been dead, as so many critics have been wont to proclaim, how is it that this lengthy, ambitious, and largely non-commercial piece of soulful, spiritual music gaining influence so quickly?
The short answer is Kendrick Lamar: Washington, along with a long list of other jazz musicians including his labelmate Thundercat, performed on Lamar’s fusion-leaning hip-hop masterpiece, To Pimp a Butterfly. And while that album is a hip-hop album—and one that achieved gold-selling status in less than two months—it’s easily one of the weirdest albums to top the charts in recent memory. Lamar built up a lot of cachet from his 2012 album, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, thanks to hit singles like “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe.” Here, however, he took inspiration from the likes of Maggot Brain and Bitches Brew, and Kamasi Washington happened to be one of the instrumental figures in his psychedelic fusion troupe.
But the long answer—or, perhaps, the short answer that explains the longer road to Washington’s incredible debut—is Brainfeeder. Launched by Flying Lotus in 2008, around the same time he released his Los Angeles album, Brainfeeder has become one of the more prolific and innovative independent labels in electronic music of the last five years. It’s become home to a rotating cast of beatmakers, many of whom hail from Southern California (Gaslamp Killer, Teebs, Daedelus), in addition to soulful producers like Matthewdavid. Yet central to the label’s aesthetic are two specific artists: Flying Lotus, himself, and Thundercat. And while arguably neither artist plays jazz in the strictest sense of the word, it’s at the heart of everything they do. Thundercat—who has also performed as the bass player for Suicidal Tendencies—released a nu jazz debut titled The Golden Age of Apocalypse, which found the virtuoso bass player nimbly guiding his fluid fretwork through bite-sized fusion jams inspired by the likes of Weather Report, Donald Byrd, Jaco Pastorius and George Duke. He’s leaned away from that a bit, favoring R&B on his more accessible follow-up, Apocalypse, but the jazz-funk is still there, at the heart of his surrealistic pop songs.
And then there’s Flying Lotus. Stephen Ellison, who indeed has blood ties to the Coltrane family (Alice Coltrane is his aunt), has never been a jazz artist per se, since he’s a beatmaker. But just as jazz has long been coursing through the veins of hip-hop artists like Digable Planets and A Tribe Called Quest, so it is with Ellison, whose 2010 album Cosmogramma sounded like nothing so much as a Sun Ra dance party, and who is, above all, instrumental in laying down Brainfeeder jazz roots. And his explorations of fusion have only grown more explicit with time; his 2014 album You’re Dead! featured contributions from Herbie Hancock—the Herbie Hancock.
Given that FlyLo and Thundercat already primed the audience over the past half-decade, and got a major assist from Kendrick Lamar, it might have been inevitable that we’d end up with a critically acclaimed jazz album in 2015. And it’s a damn good one at that—for as much as we can attribute Brainfeeder alums to turning listeners on to the sound, Washington deserves all the credit for his masterful opus. Hipsters’ flirtations with jazz in the ’90s largely meant the jam-band funk of Medeski, Martin and Wood, or Radiohead covers by Brad Mehldau. But Kamasi Washington’s The Epic is a remarkably adventurous work to hit a crossover audience. Its heady compositions skew toward the long side, most hovering just around 10 minutes apiece, and its prominent use of a string section and a 20-piece choir make it an even denser piece of music to decipher. But Washington also heavily favors melody, which offers a better entry point for those who maybe haven’t fully absorbed the Impulse catalog. There are deep grooves on “Re Run,” a gentle dream sequence on “Seven Prayers,” a cosmic swirl of voices on “Change of the Guard,” and even a vocal-driven soul ballad on “The Rhythm Changes.” It’s a lot to absorb, but it also doesn’t set the entry point for enjoyment impossibly high.
The work, itself, is worth of all the praise that’s been thrown its way. The biggest surprise is mostly where it’s come from. Pitchfork, who to my knowledge have never done so to a non-reissued jazz album, dubbed it “Best New Music.” And Stereogum‘s Tom Breihan, in a short writeup about NPR’s stream of The Epic, put his cards on the table about most pop critics’ difficulties covering jazz, admitting, “I genuinely do not know shit about it.” The punchline in this case is that you don’t have to know much about jazz to enjoy The Epic, though it helps if you have a few hours to kill (it’s fine in small doses too, don’t get intimidated). That this gorgeous jazz work is finding an audience in listeners without much of a jazz background is encouraging, suggesting that jazz may well find its way back into pop music’s radar, while new listeners are given the opportunity to finally explore a rich and often complicated world of music. Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Kendrick Lamar and, most of all, Kamasi Washington deserve a great deal of credit for getting us there. It’s what comes next that has the potential to be even more exciting.
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