Kamasi Washington's generous, maximalist jazz demands to be heard live. Info/tix
Jazz has always been a loose concept, one of its tenets being improvisation upon pre-existing forms of music. Tenor saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington is doing his part to ensure that remains true. After studying ethnomusicology at UCLA, working with artists across varying genres—from Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar to funk legend George Duke to Shins/Danger Mouse offshoot Broken Bells, and putting three albums out on his own—Washington finally earned a wide audience for his ambitious music with The Epic, released in 2015 on Flying Lotus' label Brainfeeder. Three short years later, between continuing his work with other musicians as well as releasing the Whitney Biennial-commissioned EP Harmony Of Difference, Washington came back with another album, last June's Heaven And Earth.
The album pulls together a myriad of influences: Afro-Latin music, hip hop, classical orchestration, psychedelia, and choral elements, all with a big band sound. And a big band it is—two basses, double drums, an assortment of keys (piano, keyboard, organ), strings, and an entire horn section. If that sounds potentially overwhelming, it is. Heaven And Earth is a soaring sprawl of a double album (plus a surprise 40-minute EP released in the liner notes of the album, titled The Choice) that rarely lets up. While the album is cohesive and best heard from beginning to end, there are standout tracks. The fierce, political "Fists Of Fury" (yep, the theme song to the Bruce Lee film) almost sounds like it could be at home on Marvin Gaye's What's Going On? or Curtis Mayfield's score to the film Superfly. "The Space Travelers Lullaby," the first track of Heaven, is celestial indeed, with tinkling cymbals and a beautiful classical string composition. The last track of the album, "Will You Sing," is a commanding, piano-heavy track that sounds like you might hear it in church on Sunday morning: A choir sings, "With our song one day we'll change the world / Will you sing? / So much strength in what God gave to us / Will you sing?" The spiritualist vein is strong, similarly to Washington's other releases, but in a less gospel, preachy sense and more so along the lines of Afrospiritualist musicians like Sun Ra or Pharoah Sanders. The devotional aspects lend themselves to moments of transcendence rather than proselytizing.
There aren't any immediate stylistic differences between the two sides of Heaven And Earth, though Washington has stated in a press materials that "The Earth side of this album represents the world as I see it outwardly, the world that I am a part of. 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." However, Washington's discerning vision and commitment to collaboration shine throughout. When Washington decides to step to the forefront, on tracks like "Hub-Tones," "The Invincible Youth," and "Journey," it's clear he takes his first job as saxophonist quite seriously, from smooth, funky trills to blasting crescendos. But one of the wonderful things about Heaven And Earth is how well he has brought together his most talented contemporaries and led them fearlessly, most often allowing his own playing to take a back seat in order to allow the music to stand on its own, or let his collaborators shine. The album is rife with excellent contributions, including members from his band the Next Step and his LA collective The West Coast Get Down, as well as electronic funk artist Thundercat, vocalist Patrice Quinn, and the multitalented Terrace Martin (producer, rapper, etc), who stops by to play alto saxophone on "Tiffakonkae." Opening this show is self-described "garage punk jazz funk" five-piece Butcher Brown, from Richmond, Virginia. —Katie Hutchinson