Nick Bollinger spends some quality time with the latest epic from tenor sax titan Kamasi Washington.
Here’s a paradox. There are almost certainly more jazz musicians in the world today than at any time before; more than when icons like ‘Trane, Miles or Monk walked the earth. And yet few of today’s players are known by name, let alone by a single syllable.
Perhaps the reason is that few of today’s virtuosi match great skill to a great vision. So it’s no surprise that Kamasi Washington has become that rare recognisable name, even to people who listen to very little jazz. He has both skills and vision in abundance.
When it comes to his new album abundance is the operative word. Kamasi is a 37-year-old tenor saxophone player from Los Angeles who received particular attention for his work on Kendrick Lamar’s groundbreaking rap album To Pimp A Butterfly.
But his personal breakthrough was his sprawling 2015 triple album, The Epic, which set his intense virtuosic playing amid an ensemble of horns, strings, choirs and essentially two jazz combos playing at once. Now he’s done it again.
Heaven and Earth opens with one of the few tracks on it Kamasi didn’t write, though it comes from a period he references constantly. It’s the theme tune to an early 70s Bruce Lee film Fist Of Fury. But if the strings, choir and congas conspire to create a mood of 70s-cinematic-retro, the original lyric takes on a new meaning in an age of Black Lives Matter, the ‘fist of fury’ becoming a black power salute. And the symbolism is made even clearer in the semi-spoken passages that follow.
‘Our time as victims is over, we will no longer ask for justice’ goes the recitation (by Patrice Quinn and Dwight Trible). Yet as militant a statement as that undoubtedly is, it stands in contrast to much of what follows.
The concept is inherent in the title Heaven and Earth, and the discs are divided accordingly: the first one a depiction of earthly struggle, the second a spiritual journey. Whether his concerns are terrestrial or celestial, though, his palette is thick with sound.
Kamasi isn’t a harmonic innovator like Coltrane, nor a singular composer in the manner of Monk. The elements he works with have all been around for a long time. What is unique about his maximalist vision is the way he mashes the elements together.
When I hear the strings and choral voices I’m reminded strongly of the arrangements on What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye’s seminal black protest album. When I listen to the soloing of Kamasi, trombonist Ryan Porter, or brilliant pianist Cameron Graves, I’m taken back to the high watermark of modal post-bebop jazz. It’s just that I’d never before imagined, let alone heard, those two distinct styles of music happening simultaneously. By rights it should all just be a big noise, and occasionally it is. But what is remarkable is that, most of the time, Kamasi makes it sing.
In the spirit of ‘more’ that prevails here, Kamasi has two drummers and the interplay can be terrific. Their comfort zone is that loose area between swing and soul where Cannonball Adderley lived in his great later period. And that’s a playground for synth soloist and 70s funk fetishist Brandon Coleman.
Though the second disc – the Heaven half – opens with the palpably cosmic ‘Space Traveller’s Lullaby’, it’s not always easy to tell whether we’re in heaven or on earth. And a highlight of the Heaven segment is the worldly funk of trombone player Ryan Porter on his own tune ‘The Psalmist’.
Things do reach a spiritual conclusion, though, with the stately gospel chords and hymnal march of the album’s final track, ‘Will You Sing’. Porter takes another wonderful solo, then throws it over to Kamasi who starts off slow and low and builds with the intensity of a Pentecostal preacher.
At almost two and a half hours in length Heaven and Earth is no less grand or ambitious than its predecessor. Perhaps when you can’t do better than your forebears you can only do bigger.
I’d still love to hear what Kamasi could do by going small. A trio album, or a set of a ballads, perhaps? For the meantime, though, Kamasi’s way of honouring those forebears and the great tradition of which he is a part, is by acknowledging all of it, all at once. That’s a big vision.