Jazz, the critic Stanley Crouch wrote in 1995, “is democracy in sound.”
It is, he continued, “the highest American musical form because it is the most comprehensive, possessing an epic frame of emotional and intellectual reference, sensual clarity and spiritual radiance.”
Essentially, Crouch was suggesting that, through jazz, we witness a few or many people doing a few or many things at once, clashing and combatting with one another in pursuit of a single goalto make compelling music. The process suggests a political protest or a congressional session or even the “American experiment” at large, an energized mess with a unifying mission.
But all this talk of jazznocracy, of how brass horns and upright acoustic basses reflect the national struggle, can seem pretty weak in 2016. When there are epidemics of police brutality, legislated transphobia, and economic disparity, and when a red-faced hatemonger leads presidential polls, what exactly does jazz have to say about now?
Actually, quite a lot, at least according to the brilliantly polyglot booking of this year’s Art of Cool. Yes, the programming upholds jazz traditions, further democratizing them without ever preaching “purity.” Then it counters and complicates jazz, occasionally almost kicking it aside altogether. In doing so, it reinvigorates jazz and makes it vital again, even if it doesn’t sound like Monk or Bird. No two artists better illustrate this concept and process than Kamasi Washington and Anderson .Paaktogether, jazz impurity incarnate.
Washington is a trippy, traditionalist bebop maximalist and Kendrick Lamar collaborator. .Paak is a slow-jamming, soft-focus, jazz-rap fusionist and Lamar disciple. Hip-hopthat other great and inarguably American art forminforms them both. In fact, hip-hop has become a regenerative force in and outlet of jazz. In their works, you find the pros and cons of democracy in its sloppy glory, perfect for a country that feels so close to the edge.
.Paak made a name for himself last year on Dr. Dre’s comeback, Compton. He also spent time as a drummer for Haley Reinhart of American Idol and a producer for the gimmicky rapper Watsky. His heartening 2016 album, Malibu, is a grand arrival, shaded by mellow moods and populated by many moving parts. That is the American dream, right? Grind and grind and do a lot of not exactly noble work until you get your chance in the spotlight?
He takes that opportunity, too, cramming so many ideas and sounds into Malibu. The album feels distracted because it’s excited, with .Paak just figuring it all out as he goes along. He sees what sticks and abandons some threads on a whim.
Jazz gives the album its broad scope. The smoothed-out sounds of the seventies and eighties swirl back through a filter of jazz fusion and into the unpredictable moment when jazz bopped, then ran free. You even hear the blues on Malibu’s smoky opener, “The Bird,” as .Paak howls, “My uncles had to pay the cost/My sister used to sing to Whitney/My mama caught the gambling bug/We came up in a lonely castle/My papa was behind them bars.” And during “Dreamer,” he sings, “I’m a product of the tube and the free lunch/ Living room, watching old reruns/And who cares your daddy couldn’t be here?/ Mama always kept the cable on.” He’s simultaneously boasting of and bemoaning his troubled start.
.Paak is the logical extension of mainstream rap’s recent insular turn, represented by Drake, Kevin Gates, and, most sharply, Lamar. He processes trauma, delivers the anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement, and serves as a pop star all at once. .Paak isn’t at that level, but on Malibu you hear him embody the same distinctly American, hardheaded drive.
Paak moves inward even as his record cycles through more ideas. Washington, on the other hand, inhales everything he sees and hears and howls it back out into the world, his music a kind of evacuative force intent on expressing multitudes. Last year’s The Epic is a three-hour-long race through Coltrane, space jazz, movie music, weary optimism, and swing-for-the-fences ambition. There’s the howling, almost in-the-red wailer “The Next Step” and the sentimental “Henrietta Our Hero,” an almost spiritual ode to his grandmother. For three hours, Washington refuses to be anything other than restless.
The Epic’s penultimate track, “Malcolm’s Theme,” ends with a roar of voices, guitar riffs, bass plucks, and horn honks, all around a sample of Malcolm X clarifying his devotion to Islam. Back in 1965, John Coltrane subtly (debatably, even) morphed the ostensible hook of his classic album, A Love Supreme, into “Allah supreme.” Here, on “Malcolm’s Theme,” we find praise for Allah that doesn’t need to be smuggled. Washington basically gets hip-hop here; after all, rap’s most longstanding tradition has been to do away with delicacy and just say what’s on its mind, with no room left for misunderstanding.
.Paak and Washington’s works represent the ideals of American democracy, just as jazz intendedso many ideas, so many thoughts, so many things happening all at once, as though it’s about to careen into oblivion. But on Malibu and The Epic, you also hear music that’s overly confident, big and blustery, maximalist, powered by a lack of concern for consequences. That’s American, too. And that’s jazz. And hip-hop. With Washington and .Paak, it’s delightfully hard to tell where one of those knotty institutions ends and the next one begins.