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Amplified Observations: Kamasi Washington gives new life to Debussy’s 'Clair de Lune' on his 2015 opus

Lately I’ve been trying to become more familiar with classical music. After all, classical music is the direct predecessor to most modern music — and I like Yes — so it feels obligatory in my position.

Thanks to a few playlists, I figured out that I mostly gravitate to the institutional composers: Beethoven, Mozart, Pachelbel, Chopin and Debussy. Their works form a good balance of piano suites, nocturnes and symphonies.

But, apart from enjoying Pachelbel’s timeless “Canon in D” or Mozart’s “Requiem: Lacrimosa" standing by themselves, my favorite part of classical music is that its complexity allows for interpretation and reworkings by later musicians. The production of a Yo-Yo Ma performance of Bach’s cello suites elevates the original composition as opposed to 19th century musician playing it in a music hall. Music theory has so greatly evolved since the time of Bach that his compositions could almost be considered fluid now, taking the shape of an artist’s mind. 

Of the many reworkings of classical compositions into new forms, jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s rendition of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” musically expands on the original, already sublime suite, the most. Washington and his hand-picked band double the length of the original and use instrumentation that more resembles a symphony than a sonata. 

Impressionist composer Claude Debussy first published “Clair de Lune,” which is French for “Light of the Moon,” in 1905 in his Suite bergamasque for the piano, but the work might have been composed as early as 1890. The poetry of Decadent poet French Paul Verlaine informed Debussy’s compositions, including the eponymous poem, written in 1869. The work balances lulling piano melodies with moments of intense dissonance, contrasting the comforting aspects of life with uncertainty. 

Washington released his verson of “Clair de Lune” in 2015, toward the end of his three-hour long, ambitious debut as a bandleader, The Epic, on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label. Brainfeeder’s lineup consists typically of hip-hop, electronic and funk musicians, so for it to release such an important 21st century jazz record adds immeasurable depth to its catalogue. That, and Thundercat. 

On top of an accentuation of the instantly recognizable piano chords of the piece, Washington delivers a slow, sweet-sounding and texturally rich saxophone melody that quickly renders a distinct identity to the 11-minute journey. It resembles the relief of a ship’s crew docking at a port after a long period at sea. They already weathered the storm of sharp piano strikes and have returned ashore to rest, only to weather another storm on another day.

Locked in the groove, the players fall back into jazz convention, adding a rhythm more drastic than the classical performances. The fullness of the cover’s texture also separates it from classical pieces that blend together like a glob of harmony. At UCLA, Washington studied ethnomusicology and has culled musical styles from across the globe, as evidenced by a few interviews he has given.

What Washington and his band achieve with Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” mirrors what Coltrane accomplished with his cover of “My Favorite Things,” from The Sound of Music. Both bandleaders transform the nature of the selected work and utilize the melodies and progressions to craft a piece filtered through their own style and ensemble. Reinterpretation of classical works transcend them beyond a single man and create a forum where many musicians can continue to interact and create. 

The same moon hangs in the sky of 2018 as in 1890. But the world it illuminates is far different and more unpredictable. Kamasi Washington’s “Clair de Lune” reflects the frenetic modernism and consoling progress of the last 128 years, reemphasizing the composition’s beauty and unspoken but implied concerns of the future. 

Luke Furman is a senior studying journalism at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. What do you think? Let Luke know by tweeting him @LukeFurmanLog or emailing him at 

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