“There are dark parts to life. We all want to tuck our heads down and cry somewhere. But there’s a lot that’s really beautiful. It’s amazing, a blessing, that we have all these influences. That’s what this album is saying: you don’t have to be overwhelmed.” — Kamasi Washington, quoted in July 2018’s MOJO magazine.
If you take mainstream American media seriously (just once, for fun), Kamasi Washington is the latest Savior Of Jazz. Leading a vanguard of hot young musicians from South Central Los Angeles, Washington has been everywhere at once since he emerged in 2004, working in the bands Young Jazz Giants and Throttle Elevator Music, playing with R&B/hip-hop stars like Snoop Dogg and Flying Lotus, even writing string charts for Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
In 2015, Washington unleashed his first solo statement, The Epic, and the jazz world was understandably blown away. The 3 hour, 3-CD concept album, performed by The West Coast Get Down (Washington’s 13-piece, double-rhythm section band) with strings and choir, channels the “spiritual jazz” of 1960s heroes like John Coltrane and Sun Ra into a fluid, expansive historical survey of black consciousness. One example of the man’s range and ambition: Disc Three, subtitled The Historic Repetition, whipsaws from Charlie Parker’s “Cherokee” through Claude Debussy’s “Clair de lune” to Terence Blanchard’s “Theme for Malcolm,” moving from a whisper to a scream, contentment to anguish, simplicity to maximum overdrive with seemingly effortless mastery and power.
Crossing over to a wider public, Kamasi Washington had it all, and everyone wanted him on their side (critic Greg Tate, riffing on Washington’s work with Kendrick Lamar, tagged him as “the jazz voice of Black Lives Matter”). After The Epic, the floodgates opened: Washington composed a suite for New York’s Whitney Biennial, guested across the modern musical spectrum, and toured worldwide — including a stop in Ann Arbor, where I heard his 8-piece band The Next Step live in 2016.
So when you’re on top of the heap, or in the center of the storm, where do you go next? With Heaven and Earth (only a double album — but hold that thought!) Washington makes a classic move, diving deep into a personal take on African-American spirituality, with new music informed by the gospel tradition and the blues. As he said to the British magazine Dazed:
The inspiration for that is this idea I had that the world is the way we imagine it to be, but it’s also informed by the way we experience it … The journey, you realise, is one and the same: how you imagine the world affects how you experience it. The world your mind lives in, lives in your mind.
Washington describes the music of the first disc, Earth, as “the songs that came from my own experience.” It starts at the absolute bottom — but Kamasi is already looking upward, with a gleam in his eye. The opener, a wildly imaginative take on the Bruce Lee movie theme “Fists of Fury,” already has it all: the entire West Coast Get Down slamming on Latin polyrhythms; fresh, gutsy solos by pianist Cameron Graves and Washington; churning backgrounds courtesy of a 26-piece orchestra with a 13-voice choir; desperate lyrics, both sung and chanted, that could come from South Central militants — or maybe from 2nd Amendment activists:
I use hands
To help my fellow man
I use hands
To do just what I can
And when I’m faced with unjust injury
Then I change my hands
To fists of fury
Our time as victims is over
We will no longer ask for justice
Instead we will take our retribution
Heavy stuff — but not where the rest of the disc goes; instead of indulging mass culture fantasies of violent revolution, Washington heads in a different direction. It’s a rich, reflective journey, carving a path through gigantic orchestra/choral/combo builds (“Can You Hear Him” and “Connections”), Afro-Cuban edged hard bop (Freddie Hubbard’s classic “Hub-Tones,” featuring scorching work from trumpeter Dontae Winslow and drummers Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner, Jr.) and simmering, textured small group jams like “Tiffakonkae” and “The Invincible Youth.” Washington is stellar throughout — but so is everyone else, with Brandon’s Coleman’s slinky, imaginative synth and clavinet solos consistently standing out. It all comes together on the funky, uptempo “Testify” — vocalist Patrice Quinn driving the band through a celebration of love (Human? Divine? Both?), with a groove worthy of Stevie Wonder at his mid-1970s best. Finally, the assembled forces push to the top of the mountain in “One of One” — ten minutes of gripping, non-stop crescendo, with Washington and Winslow scouting the path as they soar above the intense ensemble work. It’s quite the ride!
So, where to from the top? According to the second disc, Heaven (“the songs of how I imagine life”), higher. And further out. Opener “The Space Travelers’ Lullaby” leaps right off the mountain and heads for cruising altitude, the orchestra to the fore, with Kamasi doubling the strings and choir, riffing off them as they relentlessly cycle upward — then bringing home a riveting solo cadenza, first solid, then melting into air. But there’s no chance to catch your breath: check out the vocoder-led Brazilian jam “Vi Lua di Sol” (solos by trombonist Ryan Porter and Washington, supercharged walking bass by Carlitos del Puerto); the wickedly tight “Street Fighter Mas,” launching wordless choral volleys over a skittery rhythmic pocket straight out of Compton; and “Song for the Fallen,” an elegiac aria with a bottom end evoking New Orleans’ second line funeral processions (over which Washington, Coleman and Graves shine again)
With Quinn on Gospel-inflected vocals, “Journey” enters the realm of the spirit, humble yet confident Someone will be there, with chord progressions echoing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and Coleman summoning jazz organ master Jimmy Smith. Porter’s infectiously off-kilter “The Psalmnist” is a refreshing interlude, with the composer, Washington and Austin blowing hard over Brubeck-laced vamps. Then “Show Us the Way” channels McCoy Tyner’s modal swing into a ferocious litany for the gathered musical crew, with Quinn and the choir pleading for the Lord to show both “us” and “them” the way. (Take that, Roger Waters!) And “Will You Sing” — flowering from a brief, somber prelude into a chattering, optimistic variant on “Fists of Fury’s” opening groove, powered by squelchy synth bass and clavinet — is Washington’s mission statement, sermon and altar call, all wrapped up in ten compelling minutes that meld the most generous, all-encompassing impulses of the Civil Rights Movement with the irresistible hookiness of a Les Miserables chorus: “With our song one day we’ll change the world; will you sing?”
But wait, there’s more — The Choice, a third disc concealed in the CD and vinyl packaging! (If you have a later pressing, or just can’t bring yourself to rip open the cardboard to get the third disc, Kamasi has made it available on streaming platforms.) Washington’s liner note comment, “who I am and the choices I make lie somewhere in between [Heaven and Earth],” is completely apropos. This is a delightful, relatively short (only 35 minutes!) coda to the big album, with one last maximal orchestra/choir workout (“The Secret of Jimjinson”) and two more intriguing full band charts (the hard bop of “My Family” and the floating, polytonal “Agents of the Multiverse”). Plus two leftfield reinventions of classic pop: The Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” developing from free recitative to searing torch song, with Quinn giving her all and Washington providing a glorious breakdown and playout; and a funky take on The Five Stairsteps’ “Ooh Child” that banishes thoughts of Chris Pratt dance-offs with pensive, brooding power, humming along in low gear until Kamasi erupts with a final Coltrane-laced solo.
Although I’ve been a jazz fan for a good chunk of my life, I’d never claim to be an expert in the genre. But I think I know the real deal when I hear it — and Kamasi Washington is the real deal for right now. While I could never fully lock in to The Epic, Heaven and Earth (along with The Choice) has held me spellbound with every listen. Washington has undeniable chops, an uncannily precise ear for composition and arrangement, a widescreen musical palette that sweeps from Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers through Stravinsky to J Dilla, astounding ambition, and the leadership qualities to pull off his grand designs with style, grace and welcome for all with ears to hear. This is my presumptive Album of the Year, and whatever’s released in the next six months will have a hard time beating it. As always, I invite you to listen for yourself:
— Rick Krueger