Monumental Music

This holiday season I have had some time to listen to new music and I have been particularly impressed with two new offerings from 2015: Kamasi Washington’s The Epic and Brad Mehldau’s 10 Years Solo Live. These are both monumental offerings, showing total commitment to the art form and total immersion into the depths of modern music.

Just before Christmas, I had a long drive from Ipswich to Sheffield and decided to listen to all of The Epic, which is 174 minutes long. This album is a most welcome addition to my collection and returns the art form to its days of most impact. Kamasi Washington has assembled a great line up of instruments, including trumpet, trombone, sax, rhythm section typical of modern jazz ensembles, but he adds an additional drummer, additional bass player, additional piano player, strings, and a choir, as well as lead singer. This is an Ellington-esque line up and conjures up references Charles Mingus and Dave Holland (who I was honoured to see at a concert in Coimbra, Portugal few years ago).

He also uses a ‘saloon’ piano, which gives many of the songs a honky tonk flavour. Many songs also include a Hammond organ, which sounds haunting at points and wonderful in others. There are moments in the album when you are confronted with a wall of sound with so many textures and layers to the music that carry you away into the deep history of jazz, its origins in oppression and its evolution throughout the 20th century. This history is brought to high relief with the inclusion of spoken word directed at the politics of race relations in the US evocative of Gil Scott heron.

The songs bring surprise, atmosphere, emotion, and grit to the listening experience, and there are reminders of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Robin Eubanks, Carla Bley, Henri Texier, and many others. The whole album is worth listening to all the way through in one sitting. This is a concept and story in three parts. Once you reach the end, you will be truly transformed and elevated by what you hear. It is rich, moving, meaningful and simply breath taking.

My wife gave me the new Brad Mehldau collection of solo piano, recorded live and consisting of four CDs. I have been a fan for a number of years now, and always liked his ability to take a pop song like Radiohead’s Exit Music for a Film and then deconstruct it into a jazz recording and an adept sense of melody, harmony, and rhythm. This new offering does not disappoint. For example, he covers Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit in ways that are so imaginative. More traditionally, he has the audacity to cover My Favourite Things (the 26 minute Coltrane rendition from his Live at Montreux recording has been the version for so many years), where he succeeds in showing there is life in the song beyond Coltrane. He deconstructs, flips, subverts and toys with the harmony, melody and tempo in so many different ways and with such passion that you get lost in its utter brilliance.

These two recordings are simply monumental in their musical majesty and there celebration of all that is good about music, particularly jazz, which provides structure within which so much variety is made possible. Playing with and challenging that structure, while invoking the history of an art from that has always sought to subvert makes these absolutely essential to any serious jazz fan’s collection.

Listen, take the journey, and lose yourself.

I did.

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