Album Review: Throttle Elevator Music - Retrorespective

I was, admittedly, a little late to the party on the whole Kamasi Washington party. I think due in part to his association with Kendrick Lamar, Pitchfork giving his auspicious triple album debut, The Epic, a relatively high rating, and simply putting it—dat cover art, I stayed away for the better part of 2015.

I had a very strange dream toward the end of 2015, and I think that is what pushed me to actually give the album a listen. I did, and I loved it, and it found a home on the list of my favorite records of that year, and it’s something that I return to rather often—one, because it’s so good, and two, because it’s so long, you can toss it on for three hours as you go about your business.

Long before he was hob knobbing with hip-hop’s finest or releasing ambitious albums as a solo artist and band leader, Washington was (and still is) part of a rock/jazz collective called Throttle Elevator Music, an outfit which just released its fifth album, entitled Retrorespective, a nine-track collection that shows Washington operating in a different capacity than he does within his own work.

A blurb about the collective on its website refers to it as crossing “Coltrane with The Clash.” I suppose that is maybe romanticizing it a tad, but it isn’t that far off either. This still is jazz that you are listening to, however, there is a kind of off-the-cuff, brash punk rock quality to the music as well.

The pieces on Retrorespective are all incredibly loose and freewheeling, which is a very sharp contrast to the tight ship Washington runs with his own work. Yes there are long solos, et. al on The Epic, but you can tell that as a writer and arranger, the work was incredibly structured and meticulously planned out. However, Throttle Elevator Music does not operate in such a constrictive manner, and you can hear that from the slow, slinky rhythm the drums create on the album’s opening piece, “Liminality,” the album’s longest track, and also one of its most successful, simply because it leans more toward jazz, albeit smooth/modern jazz, than anything else.

“Playing The Alleyway” also has a similar feeling to it, though the propulsion of the song’s bass line finds it leaning more into the rock, or at least the “fusion” side of things—something they begin to incorporate more and more of as the album continues on, like on the simmering noir of “February Drift,” which features electric guitar noodling in the background, just under Washington’s saxophone, while “Rapid Rotation” and “Flux and Solder” find the band reaching that aforementioned punk rock abrasion.

And as lush and enjoyable as the album’s titular track is, the progression of the notes within the song’s “hook” find Throttle Elevator Music teetering a little too far into Dave Matthews Band territory.

Washington’s solo work was impressive, and yes there was some show-offy moments, but it was obvious how focused he was and therefore, how focused the rest of his band was. That is less apparent with his work in Throttle Elevator Music. I hesitate to refer to it as “masturbatory music,” but since it is jazz after all, there is a lot of grandstanding. However, here, it is not as much of a compelling listen because of its loose, improvisational, and seemingly ramshackle manner. It’s not bad by any means, but I get the impression the group is kind of banking on its marquee name to attract listeners—but what you get in return is not a Kamasi Washington album.

What you get instead of Washington the bandleader is a saxophonist hanging out with his other jazz musician friends, playing together without much structure. Yes it’s impressive at times, but in the end, is a different type of jazz: one that is exponentially less emotionally driven and powerful, and therefore, it’s the kind of listen that doesn’t stick with you very long after. I mean, I’m thinking about parts of The Epic right now and I’m not even listening to it, and I don’t see that happening much with the content on Retrorespective.