Tuesday, September 22, 2015

It's Awesome that You Love this Kamasi Washington Album So Much BUT...

Shortly after Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly album dropped earlier this year, I bullshitted to the other posters over at the Philaflava forums that the absolute best possible result of the album's success would be legions of young music fans gravitating toward jazz. With the amount of critical acclaim directed toward The Epic, Kamasi Washington's multi-generational jazz opus released less than two months after TPAB, it feels like maybe that, or something like that, could actually be happening, or about to happen. If so, awesome! I'm all for it. However...

What concerns me isn't that The Epic is getting so much praise heaped upon it — the album is an amazing achievement by a gifted musician and its success is well-deserved. Nor does it concern me that the album is being talked about so much by rock and rap bloggers and journalists — in the very least, the music industry views us (yes, I too am one of thee) as gatekeepers who've some power to expose new music to the masses or leave it dwindling in obscurity. No, what concerns me most is that the rock and rap bloggers, critics and journalists who are so highly touting The Epic are writing as if the music contained on this album is an absolute revelation, with no artistic precedents or peers. Sure, they'll give the obligatory nod to John Coltrane — hopefully not just because his name is included in the press release — but what about the myriad other jazz musicians who are if not gigging and recording just as much as Washington then achieving equally astonishing creative breakthroughs without nearly the same degree of coverage? (Jason Moran, Gunhild Seim and Zachary James Watkins are just a few names that come to mind.)

Again, this is not to take anything away from Kamasi Washington or Kendrick Lamar or Flying Lotus. All three are amazing musicians in their own right, all three deserve all the success and much of the acclaim they've experienced of late, and none of them have any responsibility to deflect the spotlight onto other artists. All I'm saying is that jazz music is over 100 years old; its practitioners have already brought it into and drawn influence from the worlds of hip-hop, funk, rock, blues, classical, and every other genre of music known to man. Jazz is by its very nature experimental and epic, it was so before Kamasi Washington, and will continue to be long after he's played his last note, and if you critics and fans really do appreciate this art form, then you should realize that Mr. Washington is not the only active jazz-man who's experimenting with the form in new and exciting ways, as I'm sure he'd be the first to tell you.

So where can you find these other new jazz musicians? Well, first and foremost, if you live anywhere near a city (not even just a major city — literally any city), as most of us do, then all you have to do is take a trip into that metropolis and find one of its jazz clubs (most have at least one venue that at least sometimes features this music). Failing that (because, granted, you're probably not going to stumble on the next Kamasi Washington by just walking into any club in any city), you can look to one of the many jazz institutions working to preserve and advance this art form. (Some uninformed or biased parties might complain that such institutions only focus on the former, without placing nearly enough emphasis on the latter, but anyone who actually spends significant time following them will soon see this is not the case.) For starters, I recommend you:
  • Listen to WKCR 89.9FM NY, Columbia University's radio station, which remains the country's foremost jazz music station. On Mondays through Fridays, from 6 to 9PM, they broadcast a program called Jazz Alternatives, which features musicians of today and yesterday. The Wednesday edition, "The Musician's Show," is often hosted by an up-and-coming artist.
  • Visit DownBeat.com, the website of Down Beat Magzine, the world's foremost jazz magazine which covers and reviews new releases by jazz musicians, young and old, every month.
  • Use Spotify, Pandora, and whichever other online resources you prefer to discover new music. Search for experimental jazz, free jazz, avant-garde jazz, or any other number of genre qualifiers, which, if you're just now getting into jazz via Kamasi Washington, should open you up to a whole world of beautiful music.
I'm no authority on jazz music, just a fan with a somewhat informed appreciation and a few places to voice my opinion online, but to my ears, the greatest achievement of The Epic is its sprawling, encompassing, near-comprehensive take on the genre. In many ways, it plays like a history lesson, catching you up with a little bit of almost everything that's happened in jazz over 100-plus years, from ragtime to dixieland, from sweet jazz to hot jazz, from big bands to be-bop and hard bop, from free jazz to fusion, from avant-garde to third stream and beyond. The world of jazz is not limited to the world of jazz — it's everywhere, in hip-hop and every other modern music genre — but let's not act as if the music hasn't continued to evolve on its own as well, or as if only those jazz musicians who've worked directly with hip-hop artists and other more popular musicians deserve our attention. Neither is the case.

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