Pay attention to the title of Ryan Porter's triple LP. The Optimist describes the artist, while optimism more generally defines the 100-minute-long gift he's delivered to jazz lovers via World Galaxy Records.
The album's backstory has been widely reported. It was laid down at the Shack, a studio crammed into the basement of Kamasi Washington's parents' home between 2008 and 2009. Porter tells a funny story of having to keep the windows closed to block out the sound of passing airplanes. The studio became a literal hothouse.
Porter and Washington were both working hard to establish themselves at the time — imagine the expense of getting their respective big bands off the ground. Then think of the frustration Porter faced, sitting on this beautiful recording for a decade.
To remain optimistic — to believe stubbornly in the value of your art — had to have been a kind of daily mantra for him.
Washington's involvement has drawn inevitable comparisons between The Optimist and his own triple album, The Epic. In fact, many of the same players are a part of both recordings: Washington, Miles Mosley, Cameron Graves, Tony Austin, Brandon Coleman and Porter himself.
And to the extent that both are leaders of the new West coast jazz scene that's become such a potent influence on hip-hop artists like Kendrick Lamar, the similarities are undeniable. What makes Porter's contribution unique is a lightness that we didn't get much of from The Epic. While this is clearly a big-band recording, it's never weighed down by its extensive lineup.
Every one of these 11 tracks will lift your spirits. The performances are bright and groovy. Tracks like "K-Wash" and "Anaya" will turn hip-hop fans into jazz enthusiasts. Others, like "The Psalmnist" and "Obamanomics," will delight purists.
That brings us back to the optimism thing. President Barak Obama's uniquely sanguine view of America's place in the world was on all of our minds at the time of this album's recording. Think of this marvelous album as a jazz music take on that remarkable time. We could use a good deal more of what artists like these have to offer. (World Galaxy Records)