WBGO Blog
  • First Listen: Kamasi Washington, 'The Epic'

    April 26, 2015

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    Kamashi Washington's new album, The Epic, comes out May 5. (Image Credit: Mike Park/Courtesy of the artist)

    The word "epic" sits cheerily amid the most overused hyperbole of our age. Teenage bros proclaim their recent "pretty epic" mild successes; sports commentators call anything which ends dramatically an "epic game"; the Internet-literate are quick to point out an "epic FAIL." But what else do you call a three-CD, nearly three-hour album anchored by a 10-piece jazz band, featuring a 32-piece orchestra and 20-member choir, and driven by the daydream of an imaginary martial arts grandmaster?

    The Epic is the title of the new recording from 34-year-old saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington, a musician you may have heard but not heard of. That's his horn all over the newest releases by fellow Southern Californians Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus. (The Epic is being issued by Brainfeeder, the record label Lotus co-founded.) Washington has toured with Snoop Dogg, Raphael Saadiq and Chaka Khan; his jazz credentials include work with elders like Gerald Wilson, Stanley Clarke and Kenny Burrell. The singing electric bassist Thundercat (Stephen Bruner) and his brother, drummer Ronald Bruner Jr., are lifelong friends; in fact, Washington has known most of his bandmates since high school in in South Central Los Angeles.

    The confluence of those experiences — of participating in a huge and diverse LA jazz scene, of making music people actually dance to, of working with like-minded peers for years — emerges here as scope and grandeur. The Epic swims in rhythmic crosscurrents, with two bassists, two keyboard players, two drummers. It's made tall and wide by the presence of strings and voices, made forceful and direct by horn solos and singer Patrice Quinn. It seems intentionally to overwhelm, in an immersive way; it's music to be swept up by and revisited after the wave subsides.

    In working with so many future-forward musicians, you might expect Washington's music to be equally slippery and resistant to categorization. Surely it is to some extent, as his band pulls from a huge bag of tricks. It also likes a driving modal swing groove or a knotty post-bop horn melody; it plays the blues and the standard "Cherokee." They execute these ideas with such bigness, and such a wide color palette, and a mission to remake the word "jazz" in the image of their own generation. That's the feat here. You wouldn't be wrong to call that ambition epic.

    Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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  • WBGO's Monifa Brown: "There's Something About Ella"

    April 24, 2015. Posted by Monifa Brown.

    There’s something about Ella. “I sing like I feel,” she once confessed.

    This candor and transparency are why Ella’s voice transcends age and race, and has earned followers around the world.

    Photo by WIlliam P. Gottlieb / LOC
    Photo by WIlliam P. Gottlieb / LOC

    It’s close to twenty years since Ella left the physical realm, and nearly eighty since she first wowed audiences at the Apollo Theatre’s famed ‘Amateur Hour’ as a teenager in Harlem.

    She entered the contest as a dancer - luckily for us, at the last minute, she decided to sing instead. But her irrepressible sense of swing probably came in part from the fact that she knew how to dance.

    Ella’s voice embodies girlish charm and endearing wit. Her exuberance is contagious.

    She was a tour-de-force on an up-tempo swinger, then could turn around and deliver a ballad with the same great sense of drive.

    Few, for my money, can take a lyric, whether by Berlin, Porter, Arlen, or Rodgers and Hart, and make you hear it in a new light like Ella.

    Even Ira Gershwin once declared, "I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.”

    Photo by WIlliam P. Gottlieb / LOC
    Photo by William P. Gottlieb / LOC

    Ella had amazing chops. She could – and did - hang with the best of them: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Flip Phillips, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young.

    She was also prolific – she recorded over 200 albums. From her early dates with Chick Webb to Jazz At The Philharmonic and her Pablo sessions with Joe Pass, she shows her ability to evolve as an artist, the true mark of a creative genius.

    Pianist Jimmy Rowles, her accompanist and one of those who knew her best, spoke of her magical presence in this way.

    "Music comes out of her,” he said. “When she walks down the street, she leaves notes.”

    Her Grammy-winning album Mack The Knife is one of my favorites. It’s a classic example of her onstage brilliance, charisma and ingenuity.

    The album was recorded live in Berlin, with pianist Paul Smith, guitarist Jim Hall, bassist Wilfred Middlebrooks and drummer Gus Johnson.

    It showcases her technical proficiency, the agility of her instrument, and often-humorous approach to improvisations.

    Her scatting on the title track, where she forgets the lyrics and doesn’t miss a beat, are priceless.

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    As a kid in the 70s, I was star-struck when I first saw Ella in a Memorex commercial.

    I used to borrow my dad’s Memorex cassettes to record my favorite songs off the radio and create my own mix tapes.

    In the commercial, Ella’s voice shatters a crystal glass. I’d never seen that before. I thought she was some sort of super hero.

    Rightfully dubbed “The First Lady of Song,” Ella’s ability to deliver a lyric without gimmicks, and with clarity and potency, is unrivaled.

    Billy Strayhorn sums it up best. "Ella is the boss lady. That's all.”

  • Ruben Santiago-Hudson & Bill Sims Jr.: Listen Now

    April 23, 2015. Posted by Tim Wilkins.

    Playwright Ruben Santiago-Hudson and musician Bill Sims Jr. perform live at WBGO and talk with Michael Bourne about their new original play, "Your Blues Ain't Sweet Like Mine." The play is at the Two River Theater in Red Bank through May 3. Enjoy!

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