Dan Wilson (Semisonic) Talks Kamasi Washington’s “Change of the Guard”

Majestic, broad and cinematic, this 12-minute epic takes jazz to the beach—and brings Mahler, McCoy Tyner and the Star Trek theme along for the ride.

Every summer, there’s that song — the song that defines those sunny days and balmy nights, the one you’ll forever associate with a specific time and place. This week, Talkhouse writers talk their song of the summer of 2015.
— the editors of the Talkhouse


My song of the summer for 2015 is 12 minutes long, and I’m going to be blasting it in my car, along with the album that it appears on, from coast to coast until the summer is over. Justin Bieber/Diplo/Skrillex, you tried valiantly with “Where Are U Now,” but you got edged out by a jazz record. OMI, your “Cheerleader” makes me smile helplessly, but I’m going with “Change of the Guard” from Kamasi Washington’s album The Epic

My song of the summer starts with a majestic and dissonant grand piano fanfare. Big hands. Big piano. McCoy Tyner, anyone? These chords cry out, “Look out! This is a jazz record!” And then with a roll of the snare drum, the band blasts into a fervent horn melody that could have been written in 1965. The minute I heard that horn theme, I laughed with joy. Here we are, 50 years beyond John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Donald Byrd’s A New Perspective, and somehow some scientists of jazz still hold the genetic key to that music. 

At the same time, this record also sounds like now. Maybe the sound of the recording is part of the reason. The album is called The Epic, and the sound is just that. Since 1965, recordings have gotten big. Pop song production in recent years has veered more and more towards the cinematic. Bathed in reverb and canyon-sized echo, Lana Del Rey’s spaciousness and Hozier’s dark grandiosity have been crowding out the tighter, brutally dry dance-pop of 2010. And Washington’s album, even without digitally emulated ambience, reaches for and achieves the jazz equivalent of that space. It’s orchestra-sized, broader and miles deeper than the post-bop jazz-soul albums that it harks back to. The low end is fatter, each instrument is larger than in older recordings. Strings and gospel choir do a lot to enlarge the scene. Gustav Mahler, anyone? And the vision is larger, blockbuster-sized, almost hilariously so. The sonic scale of “Change of the Guard” has more in common with taiko drum-fueled Transformer movie trailers than old Charles Mingus albums.

Like any great song of the summer, “Change of the Guard” at first put me off. I’m a longtime jazz lover, and I’ve always been suspicious of jazz-vocal hybrids. Too many times I’ve asked myself, How could such cool jazz musicians have such corny taste in singing? And so I cringed a bit when, within the first ten seconds of “Change of the Guard,” a choir entered, accompanying the band with grandiose melodies — long, wordless vowels in broad vibrato. These vocalists sound like they’ve been teleported into the present from the original Star Trek television show. In that first blast, I was disoriented and the choir seemed over the top. It took me a few passes, but now I’ve drunk the song of the summer’s Kool-Aid. I love that choir. 

The two main melodies of the song, stated by the horns, rush by, immediately followed by a long and powerful Cameron Graves piano solo. This is going to take a little time. Buckle up, sit back, enjoy the ride. At three minutes in, we’re treated to an orchestral interlude while the band switches bassists, from Miles Mosley’s majestic upright bass to Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner’s soul-jazz electric six-string bass. All of the other songs of the summer are over by now. But we’re just beginning. Trumpeter Igmar Thomas begins the next extended solo. It’s only after five and a half minutes that Kamasi Washington finally takes over and treats us to a, yes, epically slow-building, whisper-to-a-scream tenor saxophone solo.

But it’s not only about sound. One of my favorite things about this song is how hugely inviting it is. It feels like the kind of recording that could become the gateway to jazz listening and performance for both new music fans and new players. Washington’s links to hip-hop star Kendrick Lamar, to Flying Lotus and Thundercat, and to a broader Los Angeles-based music scene have brought this album the kind of attention that many jazz musicians struggle to generate. But it’s still a straight-up, historically minded jazz album, more connected to the present via R&B than via hip-hop, and more linked to hip-hop through the shared album collections that have long connected jazz and hip-hop musicians. Yet, despite staking a claim to that erudite, even brainy, jazz tradition, the track also says, “Come in! Come in, the water’s warm, jazz is joyful! You’re going to love this music! Yes, jazz is the blues, yes, jazz is screaming from the rooftops, but jazz is also singing on the way to the beach, jazz is also a vast cinematic landscape!” It’s Los Angeles, summer of 2015. Let’s drive out to Joshua Tree and listen to The Epic by Kamasi Washington.

Dan Wilson is an artist, songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist based in Los Angeles who is best known as the lead singer of the band Semisonic, for which he wrote the Grammy-nominated smash “Closing Time” as well as other international hits. Since Semisonic, Dan has released two solo albums and has become a highly sought-after songwriting collaborator due to his songwriting, performing and production skills. He has written with and produced a diverse group of artists including  Adele, Dixie Chicks, Chris Stapleton, John Legend, The Head & The Heart, Dierks Bentley, Florence Welch, Jim James, Keith Urban, Carol King, Spoon, Pink, Taylor Swift, and many others. Dan contributed three songs to Adele’s album, 21, including the hit “Someone Like You,” which he also produced, thus earning himself a Grammy for Album of the Year.  A few years earlier, Wilson took home a Song of the Year Grammy for “Not Ready to Make Nice,” one of six songs he co-wrote for the Dixie Chicks’ award-winning album Taking the Long Way. Wilson’s third solo album, Love Without Fear, was released in 2014. Recently, Dan co-wrote nine songs on Phantogram’s new album Three, including their single “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore” (which he also co-produced). You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook and his website is here.