My main outlet assigned me this review but due to a scheduling conflict, it didn’t run, thus here it is.
Based on the first few years of his career as a leader, no one will ever accuse saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington of lacking ambition. His 2015 debut, “The Epic” (Brainfeeder), was a three-disc, three-hour extravaganza. A follow up EP, 2017’s “The Harmony of Difference” (Young Turks) was accompanied by a film and presented at the Whitney Biennial. His second full recording, “Heaven and Earth” (Young Turks, June 22 release) checks in at just under two and half hours, and his music often features orchestral backing, string sections and choirs. Fortunately, his vision and musical chops warrant the length and breadth of these projects.
To say it has paid off is a massive understatement. Mr. Washington has not just found a welcome reception from the jazz demimonde his music has crossed over and made him a star. He has headlined at Bonnaroo and Coachella, two of the biggest American music festivals, and when he tours his band routinely plays at venues that usually feature pop stars. Even in an era where the music of many jazz musicians including Robert Glasper, Mary Halvorson, Vijay Iyer, Brad Mehldau, Jason Moran and Esperanza Spalding have all found receptive audiences beyond their jazz constituents, Washington’s success remains astonishing.
Mr. Washington was propelled to success from his playing and arranging on Kendrick Lamar’s landmark 2015 recording, “To Pimp a Butterfly” (Aftermath/Interscope), but most of the hip hop influence in his music is subtle. The rhythms are more muscular, and the arrangements are often so crisp that it wouldn’t be incongruous for a rapper to join the fray. For the most part, however, Mr. Washington’s music is revivalist. His sound is drawn from the Afrocentric jazz of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Even his personal style, an afro, dashikis, and rings recall that era. It was a fertile era, and recordings from that time by saxophonists Pharoah Sanders and Billy Harper as well as pianist McCoy Tyner warrant revisiting. In addition, Mr. Washington grew up in the Los Angeles and his compositions and arrangements reflect the influence of two often overlooked giants of West Coast jazz, Gerald Wilson and Horace Tapscott.
Like “The Epic,” the music on “Heaven and Earth” is lush and sprawling. His core band is large by contemporary jazz standards, often nearly a dozen members, and they are joined by a 13-member choir and an orchestra of more than two dozen performers. However, two of the most effective tracks are those that feature just the core band, their cover of Freddie Hubbard’s classic “Hubtones,” and “The Psalmist,” a tune written by trombonist Ryan Porter, a member of the Los Angeles based West Coast Get Down scene that nurtured Washington. Each track is lean, propulsive and direct, with urgent solos and explosive percussion. Washington’s solo style has grown. On his own composition, “Tiffakonkae,” the tranquil melody is nicely contrasted by Washington’s solo. His tenor saxophone sound is gritty and bold and rather than isolate a phrase as he often did on his previous recordings, his approach is expansive and seems to reveal the pain that led to the compassionate resolve in the piece.
There are missteps, most notably, on “Testify,” which delves into the smoother R&B influenced sound that Washington and many of his colleagues like. Unlike recordings from the late ‘90s by musicians like Rahsaan Patterson and Adriana Evans, Washington and his crew haven’t advanced the style much. Also tracks like Washington’s “The Space Travelers Lullaby” the strings function as sweeteners rather than a contrasting element, thus driving the homiletic music into Hallmark territory.
Second full-length recordings are difficult to put in context until there’s a third and a fourth that detail a career direction. “Heaven and Earth” feels like a consolidation of the territory that Washington established on The Epic.” It’s an important document to his fanbase, but it doesn’t supplant the first recording as a starting point for newcomers.
Martin Johnson is a freelance writer whose work on music, sports and culture has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Newsday, New York, Vogue, Rolling Stone, The Root, Slate, The Atlantic, and numerous other publications and websites. He also blogs at Rotations, and he can be contacted at email@example.com.