KAMASI WASHINGTON: ‘Heaven & Earth’ (Young Turks)

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                            Four years ago, the world was largely unaware of KAMASI WASHINGTON. He was an unsung sideman whose name was an unfamiliar one except to avid readers of album credits, who would have spotted his name on the small print of a slew of albums, including some by Ryan Adams, Robin Thicke, and Snoop Dogg.  But all that changed with the release of ‘The Epic’ in 2015, a game-changing triple album that transformed a journeyman saxophonist from California  into a world-famous jazz superstar. The fact that the music industry hype machine has gone into overdrive to promote the baby-faced gentle giant as jazz’s new saviour would seem to put a ton of pressure on the 37-year-old but on the evidence provided by his stupendous second album, ‘Heaven & Earth,’ he’s riding the tsunami that ‘The Epic’ engendered with grace and nonchalant ease.

The curse of second album syndrome isn’t a factor here on an album that is brimming with ideas and creativity. Never one to do things by halves, Kamasi together with his stellar band, The Next Step, serves up a grandiose double album that is thematically more focused than his sprawling debut but which also offers a wider tonal palette. It also affirms that Washington is an accomplished storyteller, using his music to etch vivid aural narratives that feeds our imagination.

The album’s divided into two diametrically-opposed  parts – ‘Heaven,’ and ‘Earth,’ each composed of eight tracks.  The former begins with a majestic arrangement of ‘Fists Of Fury,’ the soundtrack theme to an old Bruce Lee martial arts movie. Rhythmically, it’s dynamic and funky, with lead vocals provided by the Patrice Quinn and resonant-voiced Dwight Tribble. ‘Can You Hear Him’ takes us on a journey into the cosmos with its ethereal choir but it’s kept grounded by pulsating Latin-style rhythms, which are even stronger on the propulsive, conga-driven ‘Hub-Tones,’ with its snaking horn theme. As well as tight but fluid, ensemble work, the music is notable for its stunning solos – not just from Washington’s tenor sax, but also from trumpeter Dontae Winslow, and trombonist, Ryan Porter. The uniqueness of Washington’s sonic vision is encapsulated by ‘Connections,’ mostly a simmering, low-key ballad but which is periodically enhanced by a full choir together with orchestra and swirling harps, which give it a larger-than-life, widescreen feel.

The cinematic dimension of Washington’s music is even more apparent on the opening cut of the ‘Heaven’ part of the album. ‘The Space Travelers Lullaby’ is gorgeous beyond words – an immersive, supremely imaginative, interstellar tone poem that is beautifully arranged (with lush orchestration and a celestial choir) and demonstrates that the saxophonist could easily begin  a new career as a composer of movie scores. By contrast ‘Vi Lua Vi Sol,’ propelled by Miles Mosley’s bass, is tinged with contemporary R&B – in a similar way to what Robert Glasper has been doing with his Experiment band – and features Brandon Coleman singing an infectious melody through a vocoder.  Though grittier, ‘Street Fighter Mas’ exemplifies Washington’s penchant for anthem-like melodies while the driving ‘Show Us The Way’ sounds like a slower, less frenetic, and more considered version of ‘Change Of The Guard,’ from his first album.  The album closes with ‘Will You Sing,’ a rousing slice of choral jazz.

Despite the arresting cover photo, Kamasi Washington can’t really walk on water – but he does perform miracles on ‘Heaven & Earth,’ a deeply impressive collection of songs that will cement his place in the jazz history books. ‘The Epic’ was no flash in the pan. Rather, it was a bolt of lightning and the start of something deeper and more momentous.  He’s made jazz exciting, relevant and more appealing again to the wider general public. Anyone who doubted Washington’s ability to reach the creative peaks of ‘The Epic’ will have to think again. ‘Heaven & Earth’ is masterly in its execution and consistently breathtaking in its beauty. It’s a hugely significant record, not only for jazz, but popular music in general – a masterpiece, in fact.  Jazz has a new messiah …and his name is Kamasi Washington.

‘Heaven & Earth’ is out on Friday June 22nd.

(CW) 5/5