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KAMASI WASHINGTON Heaven And Earth gets 8/10

Kamasi Washington
Heaven And Earth
Young Turks/Remote Control


Revisionist virtuoso saxophonist Kamasi Washington delivers another colossal jazz album for modern audiences, while drawing inspiration from the innovators of the past. Heaven and Earth is the second LP from Washington, following his massive 3 LP set, the critically-acclaimed debut The Epic (2015). The new album seeks to carry the listener to similarly lofty heights, but also has an eye on more mortal matters here on Earth with songs about black consciousness, spirituality and connecting with nature as well as the mystery of the heavens above.

The styles of Heaven and Earth could be drawn from someone’s deep jazz record collection: a touch of bossa nova, some fire music, even fusion and soul get a nod here. This broadening of Washington’s musical pallet has the effect of making his music a perfect introduction to newcomers to jazz, as it draws from many previous styles. Unlike innovators in the past such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and the different phases of Miles Davis, Kamasi Washington has the luxury of being influenced and a product of his predecessors, and can channel his band to delve into the myriad styles of the past to produce new invigorated jazz pieces for contemporary ears.

Opener and first single Fists of Fury, taken from the Bruce Lee flick from the 70s, gets the action started with a call to arms from vocalists Dwight Trible and Patrice Quinn, who warn that instead of being victims of racism their hands will turn into fists to fight injustice.

The rest of the opening, ‘Earth’ side consists largely of laid-back yet pacey numbers that showcase Washington’s talents as a soloist over many of the tracks. There’s shades of fusion and bop here, and the original compositions keep the rhythm on the front foot. There’s some great solos by trumpeter Donte Winslow and drummer Ronald Bruner Jr., and shout outs also to pianist Cameron Graves whose keys provide the glue and oomph to many of the numbers.

Whereas the first part of the album you can imagine catching at a jazz club, the second part of the album, ‘Heaven’, has more tracks written for a larger stage to accommodate the orchestra and chorus that feature on many of the compositions. The songs on the second part certainly take to the stratosphere, starting with the lush The Space Travellers Lullaby. Here a full orchestra with strings along with a chorus swells and swirls around Washington’s saxophone lines to hypnotic effect, and is one of the highlights of the album.

At over 11 minutes, Vi Lua Vi Sol features a plaintive auto-tuned voice over a Latin-infused ballad. Auto-tuned vocals in jazz? “Outrageous!” traditionalists may cry, but the device works a treat, with the languid song drawing out the emotions over the length of the track and is a testament to Washington’s willingness to tinker with standard forms in the medium.

Peppy single Street Fighter Mas kicks off with a loose beat and some funky bonky bass that segues into a sultry saxophone solo. With the big choral parts again, the track captures in miniature the larger themes on the album – inspiration from the past, a fusion of styles but something new for listeners, including that lofty chorus.

The cover The Psalmist pushes the pace with a nice hard bop and tumbling rhythm, and again features some amazing solos. Show Us The Way follows, and exemplifies what the chorus can add to an Afro-futurist vibe with some amazing playing by the whole band, including some blistering solos from Washington. Closer Will You Sing sees a return to the heavens with a massive chorus and is a fitting end to the album.

Throughout the approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes of the album, many jazz greats showcase their skills. Like Miles Davis before him, Washington has assembled an exemplary band to realise Heaven and Earth. Indeed, one of the pleasures of listening to the LP is the wonderful musicianship of all the players on display here. Moreover, the performances are captured on this recording remarkably well, with tone, timbre and clarity of the instruments shining through.

Heaven and Earth solidifies Washington’s reputation as a virtuoso soloist, but also calls attention to his talents as a composer and band leader as well. Kamasi Washington is now the de facto ambassador for jazz (why else is this review appearing here?), and invites listeners to the large and wonderful body of jazz music laid down by the pioneers in decades past. Yet, Heaven and Earth comfortably sits within this prestigious canon, and is another remarkable album created by jazz’s modern master.


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