A quarter-century ago, Q-Tip reminded us that things move in cycles. A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory grafted hip-hop back onto its jazz roots, and supplied the name for L.A.’s most influential club night in recent memory.
Understanding music history is recognizing the cycles. We’re currently in the “listen to more jazz” age, when many notable rappers and bands have gravitated toward real brass and live drums. If the ’90s flipped jazz and soul samples, the new impulse is to start from scratch, inspired by Blue Note riffs, offering implicit memorials to late greats such as Gerald Wilson and Ornette Coleman.
The reverberations of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly are undeniable. Released in March, the best part of the year’s most critically inviolate album* might be its supporting cast, specifically bass-god Thundercat, space-sax visionary Kamasi Washington and Brainfeeder label boss Flying Lotus.
Kendrick may have rejuvenated jazz in the mainstream, but a groundswell has been bubbling for the last decade. Between Brainfeeder, Madlib and Washington’s West Coast Get Down crew, L.A.’s jazz scene nurtured itself out of plain view. The mastery appears most clearly on Washington’s The Epic, an album that Flea of Red Chili Hot Peppers called the “best jazz record I’ve heard since the ’70s.”
Jazz DNA lurks in Tyler, the Creator, whose Cherry Bomb featured his longtime hero, Roy Ayers. Same with Chance the Rapper and his group The Social Experiment’s Surf, recorded largely in L.A., where two members now reside. This could seem like rehash for those who grew up on Freestyle Fellowship, but even if the results aren’t always epic, you can still mark the evolution.
Here are the best L.A. albums of the half-year (in haiku):
1. Kamasi Washington, The Epic (Brainfeeder)
Tenor sax savior
Coltrane’s South Central spirit
Listen to more jazz
2. Vince Staples, Summertime ’06 (Def Jam)
Coldest breathing Crip
Best double disc since Dipset
Chris Paul call it quits
3. Earl Sweatshirt, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside (Columbia/Tan Cressida)
Good grief Earl spits spite
From Samoa to sullen
Depressed dazed sharp darts
4. Nosaj Thing, Fated (Innovative Leisure)
Beat scene escapist
Sad faded lunar light glow
Jason still drifts, floats
5. Talk in Tongues, Alone With a Friend (Fairfax)
Jangle fuzz smoke dope
Paisley Underground part two?
L.A.’s best new band
6. Nadastrom, Nadastrom (Friends of Friends)
Moombahton no más
Sleek luxurious house grooves
Dance … fall … get up … glide
7. Knxwledge, Hud Dreams (Stones Throw)
hud dreems of donuts
60 bandcamp taypes later
sample free (kinda)
8. Colleen Green, I Want to Grow Up (Hardly Art)
Smoke weed watch TV
Some routines are good
9. Hanni El Khatib, Moonlight (Innovative Leisure)
Dark raw nights of dirt
Disco thump and guitar slash
His best album yet
10. Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear (Sub Pop)
Wry mystic beard bard
Chateau lobby is forever
Belushi would dig
Honorable mention: Adventure Time, Of Beyond; Delroy Edwards, Kickin Butts!!; De Lux, Generation; John Carpenter, John Carpenter’s Lost Themes; Jonwayne, Jonwayne Is Retired; Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly; Kone, Yellowstone; Open Mike Eagle, A Special Episode of; Samo Sound Boy, Begging Please; Shlohmo, Dark Red; SK Kakraba, Yonye; Snoop Dogg, Bush; Spaceships, Little Buddha; The Gaslamp Killer, The Gaslamp Killer Experience: Live in Los Angeles.
*I’m aware that TPAB is a glaring Top-10 omission. But truthfully, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had hoped. I respect Kendrick’s ambition, fearlessness and talent, but this is a personal list and I’d rather be known for weird taste than dishonesty.
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An L.A. native, L.A. Weekly columnist Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com, follow him on Twitter and also check out his archives.