Kamasi Washington: Heaven and Earth review – A jazz genius at work
Heaven and Earth
The title of Kamasi Washington’s new album encapsulates its sweep. Heaven and Earth ranges from the planet we call home to the mythical realm where gods and angels are enthroned. Can art transcend these two plains of existence? Kamasi Washington’s stellar compositions, worldly philosophy and personal brand of cosmology are about as close as anyone in the 21st century seems likely to get.
The album is a statement of faith. Washington’s work has always been marked by his spiritualism, but Heaven and Earth also displays unwavering belief in us earthlings. It finds joy in the potential limitlessness of our species’ experience and endeavour. From its first spin Heaven and Earth feels like the opus of a man operating outside the restrictions of flesh and bone.
If you’ve been paying attention, the artistic triumph of Heaven and Earth will be no great surprise. Washington, the 37-year-old tenor saxophonist, has long orbited the Los Angeles music scene, where virtuosos like Thundercat and Terrace Martin have made contemporary classics that draw from vintage styles and the city’s traditional pastoral grooves. Working on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly gave Washington extra clout, which he brilliantly parlayed into his entirely hip-hop-free 2015 album, The Epic. With a 32-piece orchestra, 20-person choir and his collective, the West Coast Get Down, by his side, Washington produced a 172-minute record.
Kamasi Washington: Fists of Fury
Kamasi Washington: Space Traveler’s Lullaby
Heaven and Earth sees the return of all Washington’s key officers – Cameron Graves on piano, Miles Mosley and Thundercat on bass, and Ryan Porter on trombone, among others – and deploys the same kind of orchestral power that has defined his style. But at a comparatively svelte 146 minutes the album is a little more streamlined than The Epic, and split into two distinct halves.
Its Earth sequence focuses on the world as Washington sees it outwardly (“The world that I am a part of”). The Heaven sequence represents the world as he sees it inwardly (“The world that is a part of me”). Only four tracks stretch past the 10-minute mark, and more songs deploy singing and traditional song structure than before. It adds up to a piece that feels as if it has more access points than The Epic, further displaying Washington’s versatility.
Take the opener, Fists of Fury: the title echoes the old Bruce Lee flick, which depicts early-20th-century tensions between China and Japan, and advocates violence when it comes to pride and retribution. Its vocalists, Dwight Trible and Patrice Quinn, lay out the argument for a modern world: “And when I’m faced with unjust injury / Then I change my hands to fists of fury.” In a society debating the merits of punching Nazis, Washington sounds ready to throw down. Beneath the message, the track deploys his use of choirs in the way once blazed on spaghetti-western soundtracks by Ennio Morricone, aided by some Latin-style rhythms and peppy horn play. For sure Washington will never make the same record twice.
An old soul eternally thoughtful when it comes to the history of black American music, Washington echoes the breeziness of Stevie Wonder’s golden period on Testify and Tiffakonkae – until the piano crescendoes halfway through the latter, notes spiralling in every direction. Connections has a classic basement-jazz-club feel. You can almost see the smoke hitting the brass before the strings swoon and choir croons like in an old romantic movie. Heaven and Earth is an exercise in subverting expectations that’s intoxicating on every play.
The Heaven sequence is more cosmic and outlandish. Space Traveler’s Lullaby is the powerful sound of a new world appearing on the horizon. Vi Lua Vi Sol evokes the spirit of Roger Troutman, its talk-box vocals offering a charming throwback to when these spaced-out analogue vocals sounded like far-away galaxies. On Journey Quinn’s gentle cries of “hallejulah” solidify the album’s links to Christian teachings.
There’s even a version of The Psalmist, a song we heard earlier this year on Ryan Porter’s incredible record The Optimist. That album featured a collection of recordings cut in Washington’s parent’s basement back around 2008. Though recorded 10 years apart, take both as key texts in the West Coast Get Down’s jazz inventiveness.
Closer Will You Sing defines the band’s excellence. Graves’s piano chords are prominent and Mosley’s electric bass stomps, while the choir’s croons could shake the highest skyscrapers. Standing on top is Kamasi Washington, arms spread, kissing the sky. His trombone solo shakes and jitters as though swayed by a gale. The question tugs at your lapels: why dream of heaven when you can bend the world to your will? kamasiwashington.com