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Kamasi Washington - Heaven and Earth Music Album Reviews

Kamasi Washington - Heaven and Earth Music Album Reviews
The latest from the saxophonist and bandleader is a multi-genre feast of musical ideas, his most sweeping and complete statement yet.

Kamasi Washington—a tenor saxophonist, bandleader, and composer with the profile of a low-level pop star—designed his second full-length album as a metaphysical dyad, unfolding over two halves that each run over an hour. Far and away the strongest musical statement of his career, it’s also an exercise in contrast, if not outright contradiction.

“The Earth side of this album represents the world as I see it outwardly, the world that I am a part of,” Washington explained in advance press materials. “The Heaven side of this album represents the world as I see it inwardly, the world that is a part of me. Who I am and the choices I make lie somewhere in between.” (According to Discogs, a surprise third part, The Choice, comes as a CD tucked away in the album’s packaging; it wasn’t provided to reviewers, but it’s reported to contain five tracks—almost 40 minutes of additional music.)

This is a high-flown but still more intuitive concept than the one governing The Epic, Washington’s breakout 2015 debut, which sprawled over three hours and trafficked so heavily in heroic archetype that it should have a citation on Joseph Campbell’s Wikipedia page. Heaven and Earth proposes a play of external and internal realities—a bedrock of philosophical thought often framed as mind-body dualism. True to form, Washington presents this bifurcation more spiritually, as a pivoting balance of terrestrial and celestial concerns.

There’s a deadpan self-awareness to the framing of this theme, beginning with an album cover that depicts Washington like a Byzantine icon astride the Sea of Galilee. Musically, the idea coalesces best during the final track on Earth—an adrenalized piece of business called “One of One,” with a heraldic, hard-boppish horn line set against Afro-Latin polyrhythm and a blast of choral voices and orchestral strings. Its cyclical harmonic sequence creates a sensation of endless lift. That ascension brings us to the opening of Heaven, a sparkling interstellar overture called “The Space Travelers Lullaby.” Shifting strings and voices to the foreground, all billowy movement in a major key, it’s a cinematic theme whose rippling euphoria feels both magically ethereal and strenuously earned.

Washington wants it both ways, and that’s what he wants for you, too. As a listening experience, Heaven and Earth contains the most transcendent moments of his output thus far, as well as some of the gnarliest. His version of “Fists of Fury,” the Bruce Lee movie theme, falls into the latter camp, opening the whole affair à la Curtis Mayfield, in soul-warrior mode. The vocals on the track—by Patrice Quinn, a regular member of Washington’s entourage, and Dwight Trible, an emeritus alumnus of Horace Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra—gradually move further into an exhortative mode. “We will no longer ask for justice,” they each declare, one after the other, in an echoing cadence that evokes the People’s Microphone. “Instead, we will take our retribution.”

Washington has smartly sequenced the double album in a pair of dramatic arcs. And he marshals his musicians with no less careful calculation. The heavy-tread cohesion and cyclonic undertow on Heaven and Earth serve a reminder of how much time has passed since the West Coast Get Down, Washington’s Los Angeles cohort, laid the tracks that became The Epic—late in 2011. Since its blockbuster release in 2015, Washington and his band, the Next Step, have maintained a touring schedule of the sort that few jazz groups are ever able to sustain. Along the way, assorted members of the West Coast Get Down, like bassist-turned-vocalist Thundercat and keyboardist Cameron Graves, have branched out on their own, with varying degrees of success.

A handful of them stand out on Heaven and Earth. Terrace Martin makes his lone appearance count, delivering a molten, supplicatory alto saxophone solo on a bounding modal tune called “Tiffakonkae.” Brandon Coleman fashions a psychedelic synth solo on “Connections,” whose low simmer and melodic contour recall the Joe Zawinul / Miles Davis invention “In a Silent Way.” (He also does excellent vocoder work on “Vi Lua Vi Sol,” suggesting a system upgrade to Sunlight-era Herbie Hancock.) Trumpeter Dontae Winslow distinguishes himself on a handful of tracks, including a syncopated charge through Freddie Hubbard’s “Hub-Tones.”

Scan that rundown of tunes and it’s clear: Washington remains enamored of the jazz tradition even as he insists on reshaping it. The heart of the complaint against him in jazz circles is his limited range as an improviser. He has no real instinct for developing harmonic momentum in a solo, and he slips too often into pentatonic pattern-work, as if an algorithm were kicking in. On the other hand, Washington’s strengths have never been clearer. His sound is sinewy and centered, his rhythmic footing sure. And he’s a catharsis engine who also knows when to shrewdly dial it back. (Hear how he begins his solo on “Song for the Fallen,” as if delivering a confidence.) Anyway, assessing Washington by the same standard as Mark Turner or Chris Potter, or any number of other virtuoso tenors, would be something other than apples-to-apples, and missing the point. One of his core achievements on Heaven and Earth—even more than on The Epic—is to create a framework in which his ardent, expressionistic style can carry a standard into battle.

The album hits its full, glorious stride during its last several tracks. “The Psalmnist,” a taut, unassailable post-bop theme by trombonist Ryan Porter, sparks one of the sharpest Washington solos on the album, before a virtuoso battle royal between drummers Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner, Jr. The next tune, “Show Us the Way,” opens with a modal crush of piano chords that recalls “Change of the Guard,” from The Epic. It culminates, after a rafters-raising Washington solo, in a refrain by the choir: “Dear Lord,” they sing, invoking John Coltrane, “Show us the way.”

The power of that moment, which carries through the final track, “Will You Sing,” lies in a vibrational parallel to the black church, and all the momentous weight that comes with it. Washington is flagrant in aligning his music with a tradition of transcendent struggle. The feeling he’s chasing is the feeling of someone who’s been to the mountaintop and come back with an urgent story to tell.

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