Kamasi Washington, “Heaven and Earth” (Young Turks)
“The Epic,” the tenor saxophonist’s big debut three years ago, worked partly because it functioned as a provocation — an act of extravagant ambition. What he captured was music that seemed like it should have been unrecordable: It had an orchestra; a choir; not one jazz combo but effectively two.
Washington’s double-album followup is another big concept — this time, the interplay between human consciousness and collective action — and it has got the full orchestra and choir.
Washington has reason to stick to what has suited him. “Heaven and Earth” opens with a reworking of a Bruce Lee film theme song: “Fists of Fury” is an empowerment anthem with a plain-spoken chorus that’s more directly militant than anything on “The Epic.” This album dreams boldly; it also makes demands.
On “Street Fighter Mas,” Washington pulls back into a trademark blend of G-funk and fat-pulse drumming, but the firmly holstered groove has more swagger than anything on “The Epic.” Yet there are also moments of almost direct overlap with “The Epic.” On “Testify,” a jouncing and catchy vehicle for singer Patrice Quinn, Washington clearly recycles the pacing and harmonic design of “The Rhythm Changes” from “The Epic.” And on “Show Us the Way,” pianist Cameron Graves’ pattern is reminiscent of his part in “Change of the Guard.”
As a soloist, Washington still tends to start off in a low, rapped babble, and end in dry, rafters-level screams. He uses little patterns to make big proclamations.
A common criticism is that Washington’s music is not doing anything new — but it does not stick here. He plants his music in somewhat different soil, pulling rhythms from the Caribbean and Los Angeles’ fusion-driven jazz scene of the 1970s and ’80s, as well as the city’s more Afrocentric exponents. And as he corrals dozens of electric and acoustic instruments, he also thinks like a contemporary producer.
On “Heaven and Earth” there is a balance between big-stroke conceptualism — the first CD, “Earth,” is meant to represent worldly preoccupations; “Heaven,” explores utopian thought — and the workmanlike reality of collaboration. The discs do not vary in sound; instead, they are a testament to the sturdy rapport of the sax man’s Los Angeles musicians who have been playing together for years — some since high school.
Washington’s growing body of orchestral recordings is making big statements of its own, confronting an earthly reality that continues to grow darker with an earnest and open vision.
Giovanni Russonello, New York Times
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