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Kamasi Washington - The Choice Music Album Reviews

On a bonus album originally hidden inside gatefold copies of his opus Heaven and Earth, the saxophonist explores his mellower side without breaking any significantly new ground.

Deep in a 2016 New York Times Magazine profile of Kamasi Washington, the saxophonist is at brunch with his girlfriend when some smooth jazz from Najee oozes out of the speakers. But Washington is unperturbed, noting that despite the beige, wallpaper tone, Najee nevertheless has roots in gospel. For a man who’s often billed as jazz’s next big star, it’s a telling moment: For Washington, no musical genre is devoid of value. To which his girlfriend quips: “Kamasi is totally nonjudgmental, in all areas. It makes life a lot less stressful.”

Such openness is a defining characteristic of Washington’s sound and worldview. It makes him an ideal sideman for Chaka Khan and Snoop, the perfect foil for Pulitzer Kenny; He’s even chill with playing the Sexy Sax Man role at the BET Awards. For his recent opus Heaven and Earth, it’s that sense of broadness that gives him the latitude to draw on everything from an early Freddie Hubbard composition to the theme music from Bruce Lee’s 1972 kung-fu joint Fists of Fury, finding Latin flavor in the former and a Blaxploitation strut in the latter. But if you were hoping to glimpse a bit more adventurousness from the saxophonist on the bonus album The Choice (which comes hidden inside the record sleeve and, once it’s cut free, brings the runtime of the entire album past the three-hour mark), the five secret songs here instead show that Washington can also do smooth jazz with the best of them.

Washington’s latest finds the tenor saxophonist, composer, and bandleader wholly in his own lane. But the sprawl of the massive new album doesn’t lead him outside the parameters he’s already established for his sound; instead, it doubles down on them. So it’s a little disappointing that an additional 40 minutes of music doesn’t reveal any new wrinkles, twists, or paths not taken in the sessions; some curious covers and mild originals merely show that the album could have been an even mellower affair. Pianist Cameron Graves’ gentle chording and Brandon Coleman’s fluttering organ give “The Secret of Jinsinson” a soft edge, and a choir fluffs out the composition’s cloudlike shape. But there’s not enough to differentiate it from Heaven and Earth’s more epic material; it feels more like a leftover.

“Agents of the Multiverse” builds with rattles and struck percussion, Washington’s horn and the rolling tympanum suggesting an oceanic vista for its opening minute. It’s the closest Washington has come to an artist like Pharoah Sanders, with whom he’s frequently compared, but that looseness soon tightens up thanks to the percolating backbeats of guest drummer Chris “Daddy” Dave. His interplay with Washington (whose rhythmic sense on the horn might be his greatest asset) makes for the EP’s highlight, even if the song ultimately just fades away.

The Choice’s most curious moments come in the form of two covers. The first is a nine-minute extrapolation of the Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” As noted in Pitchfork’s recent survey of girl groups, this Goffin-King-penned song, a plaint of teenage sexual longing wrapped in lush orchestration, was the first girl-group song to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Dilating the piece to three times its length should open it up to vast new emotional terrains, yet Washington and band do little to keep it from slipping into a supper-club standard. This approach leaves the always-dependable vocalist Patrice Quinn, who normally imbues Washington’s vocal songs with inner strength, to verge on the maudlin.

More intriguing is the band’s read on the Five Stairsteps’ 1970 soul masterpiece, “O-o-h Child.” Here, they couch the original’s comfort in the face of adversity in an eerie, psychedelic swampiness, to disorienting effect. For most of its nine minutes, Washington and band immerse themselves in the inherent darkness and unrest that are the flipside of the song’s promise that “Things’ll get brighter.” When Steven Wayne and Matachi Nwosu’s voices harmonize and reach upwards at the chorus, the band embraces that sense of liberation, soaring to new heights right at song’s end. It’s a small musical moment that speaks even louder than many of the album’s big statements.

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