Off the Shelf: Tackling the Beast with Kamasi Washington’s “The Epic” and John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden”

Off the Shelf: Tackling the Beast with Kamasi Washington’s “The Epic” and John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden”

This piece is part of Off the Shelf, a column where I recommend a book based on an album that I love. Throughout my life, I’ve turned to music for many things: comfort, inspiration, catharsis, guidance. I want to turn to literature for the same, but am often overwhelmed by where to begin. So I’m encouraging myself to read more, and bringing you along with me. In each installment of “Off the Shelf,” I’ll pair an album with a book: a novel, poetry collection, memoir, recipe book, you name it. These aren’t meant to be exact complements. My choices might be guided by similarities in themes or tone, but will aim to illuminate the complexities of each work, and hopefully inspire you to discover a new favorite read (and maybe even album!) in the process.

For this week’s Off the Shelf, I’m pairing a John Steinbeck classic with the album that put jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington on the map. Both “East of Eden” and The Epic are daunting works to tackle, but Steinbeck and Kamasi use this expansiveness to spin new stories out of history’s most iconic tales.

Receiving a book recommendation from someone you love is always special; it’s a glimpse into who they are, what ideas they hold close, and how they see the world — and an offer to share it with you. So when my boyfriend offered to buy me one of his favorite books, I excitedly accepted. But when he gave me a copy of “East of Eden,” I wondered if I’d have to retract my promise to finish it. 

The 1952 John Steinbeck novel is a classic, but its 600 pages make it an intimidating read. I slugged through the first 150 pages, unsure if I’d ever see the end. But soon, I began flying through it, caught up in the vivid descriptions of rural life in early 20th century California. My literary trek through “East of Eden” reminded me of another one of my favorite and ambitiously long works: Kamasi Washington’s The Epic.

Kamasi Washington - 'Change of the Guard'

In 2015, Kamasi Washington released his major label debut, and he certainly didn’t play it safe. The Epic is a triple album — that’s right, not a double, but a triple album that clocks in at over three hours. The album came out when I was a mere teen, and my naive teenage self thought that I could put on my headphones and soak in all three hours in one, immersive experience. After finishing the first disc, I realized I may have been a bit optimistic, and decided to split up my listening experience before my attention span started to wane.

The Epic and “East of Eden” don’t use their length as a gimmick. Both works use their expansiveness to join in conversation with legendary cultural works, and in the process, create a new kind of history.

“East of Eden” opens in California’s Salinas Valley, where we meet the novel’s two central families: the Trasks and the Hamiltons. The novel follows these families from the Civil War, all the way through World War I. These families serve as our eyes into the lifestyles of Americans, as the country rounds the corner into the 20th century and begins to shift from rural farm life, to newly expanding cities. On its surface, “East of Eden” appears like a work of historical fiction, that uses its characters to transport its readers to a certain time and place. But the book’s other defining feature is its use of Biblical allegory, and the ways in which Steinbeck uses an iconic Biblical story to poke at the heart of human nature.

Like Steinbeck, Washington wears the hat of a historian. The Epic provides a sweeping overview of the evolution of jazz from its early 20th century origins to its genre-blending present. While Washington’s bold flavor of jazz fusion pushes the genre into new territories, it also draws on the rich history of jazz fusion. Jazz has been mingling with other genres since the ‘50s and ‘60s. Miles Davis shocked listeners by incorporating electronic elements into the now-classic Bitches Brew, and John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra blended jazz with progressive rock and Indian classical music. Not to mention jazz’s origins, which were a medley of traditional African styles brought to the Americas by slaves, that blended with blues and ragtime.

For Free? Interlude - Kendrick Lamar (To Pimp a Butterfly)

Washington himself has played a key role in the evolution of jazz in recent years. The saxophonist is a frequent collaborator with hip-hop, electronic, and R&B artists like Flying Lotus, Thundercat, and Kendrick Lamar (Washington lended his saxophone chops to Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly). Washington unites all of these influences in The Epic, pulling inspiration from jazz greats like John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner, following the genre through ’60s jazz fusion and the new collaborations happening today. Like Steinbeck, he retraces a history, and uses this historical lens to set the scene for other thematic developments.

The other pillar of “East of Eden” is its use of the story of Cain and Abel, the Book of Genesis tale of two brothers vying for God’s approval. Adam Trask raises two sons, Cal and Aaron. Aaron is gentle and trusting, while Cal is guarded and callous. “From his first memory Cal had raved warmth and affection, just as everyone does,” writes Salinger. “What was charming in the blond ingenuousness of Aaron became suspicious and unpleasant in the dark-faced, slit-eyed Cal.” Cal feels doomed to a life of dishonesty and mischief, and tries to buy his father’s love by growing beans on his family’s farm and selling them for a steep profit due to the food shortages of WWI. However, instead of feeling proud of his son’s gift of $15,000, Adam Trask refuses to accept the money, and Cal becomes devastated.

Rather than rehashing the story of Cain and Abel for credibility or prestige, Steinbeck’s use of the Biblical allegory puts a new, humanizing spin on an old story. In describing the relationship between Cal and Aaron, Steinbeck urges us to acknowledge our power to choose our own path, rather than feeling like our hand is forced by fate. Steinbeck reminds us that we all have the potential for good or evil in us; it’s which one we choose that shapes who we are.

Kamasi Washington - 'Clair de Lune'

Like Steinbeck, Washington puts his own spin on classic cultural references. On The Epic’s final disc, Washington offers his own version of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” The piece is one of the most recognizable works of classical music, and can easily sound cliché or tired. But Washington strays from the song’s traditional piano arrangement, and hurls a jazz combo, a full choir, and bowed bass solo at the tune. Like Steinbeck’s use of the story of Cain and Abel, Washington’s re-contextualization of “Clair de Lune” brings the piece into a modern, unexpected realm.

At the core of both works is a desire to create something new; not simply for the sake of shocking audiences, but to relate to them. Both works pay homage to those who have come before them, while addressing old themes in a way that will connect with modern readers and listeners. Steinbeck retells our culture’s oldest stories, and Washington digs through the history of his genre, but both do so with the purpose of reminding us that for art to be impactful — for it to challenge us and move us, it must present something new. And even if it comes bound in 600 pages or 3 CDs, I think it’s worth it.