The Rhythm Changes – Kamasi Washington

Kamasi-01

It’s definitely way too early to start my pitch for jazz standards as archetypal pop and The Rhythm Changes as a new jazz standard candidate, but the opening keys of this track have already got their hooks in me, and I’ve no power to resist.

It’s not that big a leap to call the jazz standards the pop of their era, and you’d need a brighter and more informed mind than me to actually dig into the meaning of the word pop at a time when people still gathered round the piano with scores bought for pennies or went to stage shows purely because they knew a new banger would be promised. I’ll simplify it though: as short, hooky songs which begged listeners and performers to get involved and put their own stamp on them, those jazz classics absolutely fit any criteria I’m willing to throw at a song to call it pop.

And frankly, if you don’t see some Gershwin and Porter on these pages before I finish, it means I’ve given up shockingly early.

But this isn’t yet a standard, it’s a seven minute jam, heaped with solos, from a three hour long maximalist jazz record. It doesn’t matter that Kamasi is as trad as fuck, trying to reinvigorate the big band scene with a huge swell of great music and great musicians. The fact is that jazz isn’t pop these days.

Except maybe to nerds like me, digging away to find gems like this.

That opening fuzz of organ and keys is exhilarating beyond belief, slowly coming from nowhere and ripping you in it. The drums lollop in and the piano fills out the theme and before you know it you’ve got a swing in your step.

Patrice Quinn owns the moment wholly. Her voice punctuates and proposes. It doesn’t need the choir and brass that eventually start padding her out, but my god does it feel deservedly decadent and lustrous when it does.

The rises endlessly, always building and lifting and pulling you up. Always more open, always stronger, always more fascinating. The solos are often simple and straightforward, and they don’t outstay their welcome, just provide one or other viewpoint on the way up this glorious hill of a song. Somehow begging you to pound your feet ever upwards, filled with promise and change.

The rhythm never changes, ironically, it’s such a steady, solid roll. But it’s perfect, because everything else changes around it. It’s this perfectly smooth grounding layer to keep everything else recognisably whole, no matter how off course the performers want to take it.

It’s probably why I think of it as a standard actually. The core of the track is so simple and ubiquitous that it provides that bed of expectation you kind of need for good jazz to really get its hooks in.

For me the benefit of the standard is that you know what it’s supposed to do, so when a particular performer plays fast and loose with it, you know where it’s coming from, even if you don’t know where it’s being taken. The deconstruction feels familiar, knowable. It’s why jazz covers are so common, because you know what’s being done to a song you’ve heard a million times before, you get to hear it afresh, with new ears. Just like the first time.

Here the same effect is created by just creating that simple, irresistible progression, defining it with a perfect vocal, then letting a sequence of instrumentalists pull it apart, ever so gently. Once it’s handed back to Patrice, you should already be firmly ensconced in the world of the song, and that finale will just leave you begging for more.

It’s one of the subtler, simpler and least resistible tracks on Kamasi’s Epic, but it’s also one of the best examples of a pop delicacy I’ve heard from jazz in many years.

If you have a chance, see it live, I guarantee you it will thicken, swell and burst your heart before you’re even halfway through. What happens after that I can’t make promises about. I felt like I was on fire, in love and lifted to heaven all at once.

Just like all the best pop. For sure.

Let the rhythm change you.

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