Back in 2008, the names Ryan Porter and Kamasi Washington didn’t ring bells with the general public. They performed jazz when the genre wasn’t as popular, seven years before Kendrick Lamar’s avant-rap opus To Pimp A Butterfly helped make it trendy again. Two months after that album’s release, Washington—a Lamar collaborator—dropped his own ambitious project, a triple LP called The Epic, on which the saxophonist explored gospel, soul, and funk in a whopping 173 minutes. It was an immediate hit, and in the years since its release, Washington has become the world’s foremost purveyor of big band, spiritual jazz. Yet 10 years ago, he and Porter were simply trying to make it, and the music collected for Porter’s new album—The Optimist—represents that moment in time.
The Optimist is Porter’s sophomore LP and a quick follow-up to 2017’s Spangle-Lang Lane, where the trombonist turned well-known children’s songs like “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” “Rain Rain Go Away” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” into grand orchestral suites. While Porter crafted Spangle-Lang Lane with his own kids in mind, The Optimist is equally aspirational for different reasons. He conceptualized the album at his apartment in Inglewood, California after hearing Barack Obama’s inauguration speech on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. “I made it a point not to give up on the dreams and goals I’ve set out for myself, and to persevere no matter how hard the obstacles may be,” Porter wrote in a letter that accompanies The Optimist. In turn, “Obamanomics” was the first song recorded for this LP, and its anthemic tone captures the widespread euphoria that surrounded the nation’s first black president. Perhaps on purpose, this album is being released during one of the bleakest times in political history to inspire listeners to keep fighting for positivity.
The Optimist was recorded between 2008 and 2009, at Washington’s parents’ house, in a small basement called “The Shack.” The space was located near the landing strip at Los Angeles International Airport, and every 15 minutes, the sound of incoming planes threatened to disrupt the recording process. The band had to keep all the windows closed, which caused unbearable heat, exacerbated by the Shack’s cramped conditions (the space comfortably holds four people; during the Optimist sessions, eight people squeezed in). “After it was all said and done, The Shack smelled like tube socks and backpack straps,” Porter recalls in the album notes, “but the unity and love we have for each other was evident on every song.”
To that end, there’s a strong communal essence to this record. These songs feel like extended jam sessions, and in certain spots—like on the 15-minute “Impressions” and the 17-minute closer “Chocolate Nuisance,” each band member is given ample room to flex their respective chops. The Optimist offers a glimpse into the past, well before these artists became synonymous with elite-level jazz. For a band still working toward something greater, The Optimist sounds fully realized. The world just needed to catch up.