Epics traditionally are thought of as literary works, but the word actually comes from the Greek word for song. The ancient poets of old used to sing their poetry to music. So I’ve put together a list of pieces that I consider to be of an epic nature. These are songs that tell riveting narratives, feature driving rhythms and intense orchestrations. They’re compositions that have sent my earhole into altered states, deep trances, and swelled emotions.
Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the songs in this Artist’s Choice:
“Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe”
Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe (Impulse!, 1969)
When I first heard this, I wasn’t too familiar with Albert Ayler—but I felt like my mind had exploded. The words that the vocalist [Mary Maria Parks] was saying were so powerful, and the sound was so chaotic, yet in the nine minutes that it goes on for it becomes so healing. It’s a hymn, and Ayler is like a prophet on the saxophone. It’s delirious, sort of a healing madness, and the start of an amazing journey.
“Man with a Harmonica”
Once Upon a Time in the West (RCA, 1972)
My dad loved all the spaghetti Westerns, and Once Upon a Time in the West had the most amazing opening. There’s no dialogue, only these sidelong glances at each other and music, which segues into “Man with a Harmonica.” When it hits, and it builds up, it all by itself brings the power to the film. In fact, the director, Sergio Leone, said that that’s how they came up scenes: Ennio would write something and then they would build a scene around that. Talk about epic!
Money Talks (Stax, 1978)
Once again, we’re dealing with high drama that builds up, from a great bassline and some subtlety, like in the piano, to something larger than life. I love to play this one for people and just blow them away. Not a lot of people know the Bar-Kays, and even less people know this record—it was originally done by Grand Funk Railroad. But you know what happens when black people take shit: They make it something else. And man, is this song something else.
The Comet Is Coming
“Birth of Creation”
Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery (Impulse!, 2019)
Shabaka Hutchings is such an amazing soul. I admire him so much for his composition styles and the way he thinks about music. This tune is so contemporary, with all its electronics and loops and textures, but it’s so rich and full in a way that belongs in a classic era. You’ve got this incredible bassline, with bass clarinet and clarinet going back and forth and these sound layers coming in and out—it’s genius. And it fits right in with these big dense orchestrations of the past.
“Getting It On”
Love Oh Love (Curtom, 1973)
All the DJs who really play anything are gonna have some Leroy Hutson. He was a producer, writer, singer, and this one is as much a big-band record as anything. You have these crazy strings that come in and instead of a vocal you have this wriggly synthesizer line, up against all these horns: So much is going on that you barely even notice the funky bassline at the bottom. It’s so dramatic, but it’s so soulful. And it’s one of those that I remember hearing for the first time because I immediately said, “Okay, I’m gonna need to hear that another ten thousand times.” And I did.
“Liberty City Rundown”
Opus Krampus (Sound Aspects, 1985)
So far this playlist has surrounded you with the familiar, but Griot Galaxy is a real avant-garde epic. You see the album and these brothers are kind of like the Art Ensemble of Detroit, with the painted faces and everything, then you put it on and this huge melody comes blasting right at you and you’re like, “What???” I was working at a record store when I first heard this, and my friend and I were trying to close, but we were so floored that we ended up staying to listen to the whole record. It goes so hard with the polyrhythms—how are they doing that? I still don’t know.
Fyah (Gearbox, 2019)
Theon plays with Shabaka Hutchings in the group Sons of Kemet, and he plays a tuba like it’s just nothing. In concert he can go for two or three hours! Here he is playing the kinds of lines that you would expect to hear on an electric bass, but no—it’s all the tuba. And then Nubya Garcia, the amazing tenor saxophonist, comes in and it’s almost like she’s talking shit against this tuba. I don’t think any of these folks are 30 years old yet, but they’re so strong and they’re so in the music.
“Let Me Be”
Chocolate City (Casablanca, 1975)
Everybody knows Eddie Hazel, the guitarist, from his playing on things like “Maggot Brain” by Funkadelic. But that’s actually Eddie singing on “Let Me Be”: He was an amazing singer as well, and he’s doing this theatric-like thing with Bernie Worrell doing his classically trained conservatory stuff. We hear that theatrical aspect to Parliament and we just assume that they’re not serious. But Bernie is just killing it on here, and the chord progressions are out of this world. They keep it black, but it’s a serious composition: It’s classical, and I don’t care what anybody says.
Minister Keith Pringle and the Pentecostal Community Choir
“Call Him Up”
True Victory (Savoy, 1980)
This isn’t one of the tunes that you could say has a gradual, dramatic buildup: It hits, and it hits immediately. Gospel music is so important, and a lot of people don’t get into it because they may not be religious. But you don’t have to be religious to appreciate some good-ass music. This song is bangin’. People go crazy to this song, and not just in church. Keith Pringle is in a long line of choir directors and composers that, because they’re doing gospel music, aren’t recognized as the amazing musical minds that they are. When I was thinking about “epics,” this came to my mind immediately.
Wendell Harrison & Phillip Ranelin
“Angela’s Dilemma, Parts 1 & 2”
A Message from the Tribe (Tribe, 1973)
We go back to the Detroit free-jazz scene for this one. That scene was always very political, and the “Angela” in the title is Angela Davis. It goes so many ways, with all these horns and all these drums, and then they talk about what Angela Davis was going through. … I hear this record now, made almost 50 years ago, and I find I’m still thinking and feeling the things that they’re talking about then. It leaves me pondering so much.
[As told to Michael J. West]