After spending more than a half decade writing about music, it’s getting easier and easier to see which way the wind is blowing. The habits and tics of creative people aren’t hard to miss. Even more so when it comes to predicting how a media cycle is going to go. The dance between journalists, their respective publications, and often the publicists who feed the beast as much as the rest of the industry has steps as pat as the Electric Slide—go to enough weddings and family cookouts and one can recognize the moves pretty easily after a while. So when an album appears, and the music press is easily and collectively calling it “the next big thing” or even, as the jazz press is often wont to do, “jazz’s salvation,” it’s best to take the recommendations with a grain of salt. In the last few weeks, I’ve been taking in Los Angeles saxophonist Kamasi Washington‘s album, The Epic, with almost a whole pan of the stuff.
Washington’s album is a massive accomplishment, a journey through the history of the last 50 years of jazz, harkening to John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra, and other leaders of large ensembles that sweep and move and inspire. It’s also a massive undertaking, in part because The Epic is spread over three discs, running three hours in length. The shortest song on the set is six and a half minutes long—and this is not a common length. Most of the tracks hover around the eight- to nine-minute mark, but topping ten minutes is certainly not uncommon. There are 17 pieces in all, 15 of them original compositions. It’s a lush, dense collection of songs that are a delight to hear.
So yeah, singing the praises of Washington’s album, which soulfully reminds the world what the genre of jazz is, and has always been, capable of eliciting is a pretty easy task. It’s a popular opinion to hitch one’s wagon to. It’s not even far off. The brothers Bruner—drummer Ronald and bassist Steven, aka “Thundercat”—continue to shine as they always have, and serve as a reminder of the power of the West Coast music scene. Pianist Cameron Graves really does have a McCoy Tyner thing going on. The saxophonist has created a work that is wildly divergent from where all his press had come from before, namely his work on rapper Kendrick Lamar‘s To Pimp a Butterfly, yet maintains listener interest through ambition and scope.
As a music journalist, I think frequently about how music is processed. How do I personally enjoy what I’m hearing? How would someone else? I hear music that’s sent to me for free, and I try to say nice things about what I’m hearing when I can, but I’m also receiving so much music that I can’t possibly even listen to everything people send me. That’s a reality of the job I’ve taken. Thus, whenever I’m hearing a work and decide to speak on it publicly, it must have a quality about it that not only makes it worthy of comment, it must be more worthy than the stacks of albums on my desk and the myriad downloads emailed to me daily. A work must be more noteworthy than the glut I constantly receive. The glut, meanwhile, is itself but a microcosm of the music out in the universe that musicians make every day, that I can hardly fathom and of which I’m certainly unaware. The struggle to choose music to highlight is a struggle with music that’s been given to me, not the struggle the average listener must have in finding music to listen to in the first place. The music I highlight must rise above a flood of other submissions. The music my reader discovers, by contrast, emerges from a crowd he or she may not even see. As a critic, I’m still trying to approach my digestion of work in a way similar to how a fan would, while recognizing there are unavoidable differences in our approaches.
Thus, when I see a gargantuan effort like The Epic receive the praise that it does, while most see the discussion around Washington, the album, the LA jazz scene, and jazz overall as heartwarming, I can’t shut off my cynicism, because realistically, I can predict how the work will be digested: An artist, on his debut release, instead of separating this large effort into three albums and releasing them piecemeal throughout the year, dropped the whole thing at once. He makes an argument about cohesiveness of ideas and the depiction of a loose narrative, and that’s an explanation that can absolutely hold water, particularly when considering artistic license. However, the sprawling nature of each song creates overlong tunes with what are ultimately unmemorable melodies, each destined to get lost in the wash of 16 other songs just as long, with melodies that are almost as easy to forget. (Fellow critics, it’s been a couple of weeks—name three songs from this album without checking. Now hum the melodies. Can you?) The praise The Epic has received is halfway merited, but continue down the timeline and it’s not hard to picture the lay people this album has converted ultimately forgetting these songs six months from now. The music critics and Washington’s fellow musicians? Their memories will last a little longer. They will still call this album a modern classic. They may even be able to talk about a song or two. This coming November, it’ll top every publication’s Best of 2015 list. But in 2016, much of it will be forgotten, by the average music fan and most journalists alike. There’s just too much there to have to keep in one’s head, and not enough of a real pattern—not enough hooks—to keep it lodged in there.
While I have been sneakily staying quiet about The Epic since its release (and said nothing before its release, particularly since neither I nor my home base radio station have yet to be added to its label’s mailing list, Lord knows why), I have been unable to stay silent at all about drummer Makaya McCraven‘s latest album, In the Moment, which released earlier this year. Like Washington’s Epic, McCraven’s In the Moment is culled from a mass of songs, 48 hours of recorded improvised material over months of gigs. What resulted in this case, though, was 19 short tracks, running just under 75 minutes total. It’s some of the finest music I’ve heard yet this year—still changing the perceptions of jazz; filled with energy, emotion, and an unrelenting infectiousness; and showcasing impeccable musicians creating jazz music from a part of the country that doesn’t receive enough attention (Chicago instead of LA). McCraven’s album is great not only because it’s replete with talented musicians (bassist Matt Ulery, vibraphonist Justefan, and trumpeter Marquis Hill, among others) but because it’s just long enough to allow a listener, casual or professional alike, to digest the work, to marvel at its brilliance, and possibly to have enough time to play it over again and fall in love with it repeatedly, without having to determine if there’s enough time to get through it unless one has a road trip or major project to tackle first. Through judicious editing, McCraven made a great album that doesn’t require a listener to have to fit his art into one’s calendar.
As the head of a publication, I often have to think of my written work not only as a writer would, but also as an editor, which means I have to think about what is created as a reader would receive it. An editor thinks of the audience more; that’s the job. The work of the artist is to create art, to provoke an audience, to solicit a response, to explain a perspective on the world. The work of an editor, of a curator, is to consider the work but also how the work might be accepted by others. I must consider this for any publication I oversee, yet once one starts to see how this works in one regard, it’s hard not to see how these qualities translate elsewhere. Kamasi Washington made a large, brilliant album that for this very reason may ultimately be forgettable, because in his dedication to the work he neglected to consider the audience’s ability to digest it. He’s feeding the world meat when they only have been ready for milk, or at the very least, the man could have separated the meal into smaller portions.
Nextbop editor Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9 PM CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat and the San Antonio Current. You should follow him on Twitter.