Kamasi Washington has not only taken the jazz world by storm. He’s moved well beyond it, bringing in a new generation of non-jazz lovers too. Heaven and Earth, the follow-up to the widely heralded 2015 Epic, is comprised on two halves, runs for two and half hours, and is available in a double deluxe CD and a four piece vinyl in addition to all digital services. In a word, and in keeping with his ascending reputation, EXPANSIVE. That word could also aptly describe his global touring schedule.
<P>Washington is a veteran of the L.A music scene, enabling him to move from the big band jazz of Gerald Wilson and the fusion of Harvey Mason to an affiliation with Snoop Dogg, Raphael Saadiq, and most importantly mega-rapper Kendrick Lamar. Washington arranged the strings and played his tenor sax on Lamar’s Grammy winning To Pimp A Butterfly. Since then Washington, Lamar, DJ/Producer Flying Lotus, bassist Thundercat and Pianist/Producer/ Alto Sax player Terrace Martin have made mutual contributions to each other’s projects has allowed them all to operate outside the conventional boundaries of genre, not unlike Robert Glasper, Christian Scott, and other contemporary artists. By and large, though, Washington’s own jazz efforts are more conventional.
<P>Washington’s own band, The Next Step, is, by most measures, large enough, usually numbering10-12, depending on how many percussionists he uses. Many of these players have been with Washington since high school and the chemistry is palpable. There are two drummers (including Ronald Bruner), two bassists (including Mike Mosely and Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner), two keyboardists, trumpet, trombone, and vocals (Patrice Quinn and Dwight Trible). On ten of the sixteen tunes, they are supported by a full orchestra and choir. Washington composed all but three tunes. One is written by bandmate trombonist Ryan Porter and there are new arrangements for the Kung Fu tune “Fists of Fury” and Freddie Hubbard’s “Hub Tones.” Washington produced and arranged all selections except Porter’s “The Psalmnist.”
It appears that this, like its predecessor, is a concept album but the music on both halves is much more similar than different. Washington offers this – “The Earth side of this album represents the world as I see it outwardly, the world that I am part of. The Heaven side of this album represents the world as I see it inwardly, the world that is a part of me. Who I am and the choices I make lie somewhere in between.” Most of the tunes are in the eight to twelve minute range, allowing ample room for solos, with the choir and orchestra often serving as both breaks between solos and backing support to soloists. Washington plays tenor on all tunes, sounding at times like Coltrane (his biggest influence) but also reminiscent of Pharaoh Sanders or Azar Lawrence when aggressive and Wayne Shorter when in a ballad mode. His music, especially when two percussionists are present, reflects Horace Tapscott’s Pan-African People’s Arkestra, and throughout evokes Donald Byrd and Eddie Gale’s jazz and choir explorations, Afro-Latin jazz, spiritual soul, and with the use of vocoders, DJ culture. Sun Ra and albums like Coltrane’s Africa Brass come to mind as well.
Disc One – Earth begins with “Fists of Fury” featuring the duet vocals of Patrice Quinn and Dwight Trible backed by orchestra, choir, two percussionists, and the full band. Pianist Cameron Graves and Washington solo. “Can You Hear Him” feature a Coltrane-like entrance from Washington with solos from Porter, who is the second most featured soloist throughout, a synth solo from keyboardist Brandon Coleman, and a wondrous crescendo by the choir and orchestra. “Hub-Tones” is done without the choir and orchestra, features all three horns, including trumpeter Dontae Winslow, and lots of drum and percussion. The ensemble playing is terrific. “Connections” features electric bass, the return of orchestra and choir, and keyboard work that is guitar-like with wah-wah effects.
The next three tracks are done without choir and orchestra with Jamael Dean playing piano and Terrace Martin on alto sax for “Tiffakonkae” which also has formidable ensemble playing. “Invincible Youth” has a chaotic, Coltrane like intro and Thundercat Bruner on electric bass. “Testify” has a gorgeous lead vocal from Patrice Quinn who wrote the lyrics as well. “One of One” has the orchestra and choir returning for a piece that allows solos from the three horns and a rather abrupt choir/orchestra ending.
Disc Two- Heaven begins with another single from the project, “Space Traveler’s Lullaby” that has lush, ethereal orchestra/choir mostly with Washington as the only soloist, entering at 8:42 of a `10:51 length piece. “Vi Lua Vi Sol” has no choir/orchestra but does have vocals and extended solos from Washington and Porter. The next two pieces have the full orchestra and choir in church-like mode, are rich in sax and trombone solos as well as highlighting the keyboards. Patrice Quinn again takes the vocal lead (with many “Hallelujahs’) on “Journey,” which also has Coleman taking his organ to other-worldly realms. Porter’s tune “The Psalmnist,” features more killer ensemble playing with solos from Washington and Porter. “Show Us the Way” returns the orchestra and choir and another Coltrane-like approach from Washington playing at a furious tempo. The choir/orchestra brings the piece to a glorious finale. The final selection, “Will You Sing” has the full complement including funky bass, keyboards, and vocoder with the finale sounding like the close to a symphony.
Obviously the scope of this project is immense. Washington may be the best thing that’s happened to jazz since Weather Report. Yet, this is far more than fusion. Washington is delivering the best of classic jazz from the ‘60s and ‘70s, blending some classical influences with the orchestra and choir, and somehow bringing enough contemporary touches to develop his own uncompromising, vastly appealing signature style.