Album of the Week: Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth

Jeff Terich
Kamasi Washington Heaven and Earth review Album of the Week

If a younger generation is listening to jazz again, Kamasi Washington has a lot to do with it. The 37-year-old saxophonist and bandleader recorded a series of self-released recordings throughout the ’00s while building up a breathtaking résumé full of guest appearances on albums by Ryan Adams, The Twilight Singers, Flying Lotus and—just before his landmark 3xLP debut—Kendrick Lamar. So by the time Washington delivered his three-hour Brainfeeder debut, 2015’s The Epic, he’d already built up a name for himself as a prolific underground player. The surprise of that album wasn’t necessarily its quality—keeping company with the likes of FlyLo, Kendrick and Thundercat speaks to the kind of talent Washington harbors—but the breadth of its scope and depth of its offering. As a concept album mostly told through instrumental pieces, it conveyed emotional and spiritual messages through elaborate jazz arrangements rather than words. Its music was its poetry.

Three years and hundreds of shows later, Washington has returned with Heaven and Earth, a double-album that maintains the grandeur and ambition of his 3xLP debut while adding a looser, more accessible sensibility. There’s a lot of music here, some significant chunks without the strings and choral arrangements that defined The Epic. Instead Washington’s ensemble puts aside some of the Sun Ra-isms in favor of a more groove-based hard bop sound. Though leadoff track “Fists of Fury” packs pretty much everything in Washington’s arsenal, opening with a line that speaks to a sort of love and positivity that underlies this batch of songs: “I use my hands to help my fellow man.” “The album on some level is also about empowerment, coming to this realization that I am responsible for the world that I live in,” Washington said to Stereogum. “I can make it what I want it to be. I don’t have to wait for someone to make it what I want to be.”

Heaven and Earth is 30 minutes shorter than The Epic, which by most albums’ standards would be a massive difference. It’s still well over two hours long, however, and if there’s anything Washington can be counted on, it’s to always be in pursuit of bigger ideas. On a track by track basis, those ideas are still big, like on the cinematic cosmos symphony of “The Space Traveler’s Lullaby,” which slowly emerges from a gorgeously atmospheric introduction to become a breathtakingly sweeping moment of soaring beauty. There’s an entirely different sort of sprawl to “Vi Lua Vi Sol,” which swaps out the orchestral arrangement for a vocoder croon and what sounds like a Theremin, creating a sci-fi jam that maintains a dynamic rhythm.

There’s a greater immediacy to many of the tracks on Heaven and Earth, many of which come from the sound of a tight jazz combo cooking in a tight session. “The Invincible Youth” begins with the sound of chaos, a more abrasive approach than expected from an ensemble so typically associated with transcendent beauty. Yet it settles into a laid-back funk that provides a soothing balm for the intensity from whence it came. The rhythms behind “Hubtones” are more frantic and complex, yet the track is among the album’s most soulful and fun with a series of passionate solos. And though the choral presence of Washington’s vocal collaborators appear in both “Can You Hear Him” and “Street Fighter Mas,” each of these tracks stands out simply for how deeply they groove.

The duality that Washington is concerned with on Heaven and Earth—the material world and the internal one—is present in each of these tracks, each one a balance between warmth and ambition, concept and soul. Just as it seems Kamasi Washington keeps reaching farther and farther, he does so while bringing the listener in closer, and no matter how dense the pieces on the two-hour-plus album are, they offer a nourishment that keeps them from beyond beyond one’s grasp on a more personal level. It might take a few listens for everything to sink in; actually, it will almost certainly take a few listens, but that’s OK. Music this rich deserves the time to absorb and comprehend, and in the process of doing so, a remarkable thing happens. What feels like a kind of sorcery reveals itself as the some of the most talented musicians in America simply working their hardest, finding harmony and embracing it. It’s a seemingly superhuman feat made all the more human.

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