Kamasi Washington - Heaven & Earth

by James Weiskittel Rating:9 Release Date:2018-06-22
Kamasi Washington - Heaven & Earth
Kamasi Washington - Heaven & Earth

While Kamasi Washington has been recording since the early 2000’s, it was his 2015 release, the appropriately titled The Epic, that brought the LA-based composer and bandleader near-universal acclaim.  Playing alongside both jazz heavyweights (Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter) and hip-hop legends (Nas, Snoop Dog), Washington’s ever-growing resume even includes a stint as string-arranger on Kendrick Lamar’s masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly.  On the heels of last year’s Harmony of Difference EP, a collection that earned him rave reviews across the board, Washington returns with Heaven and Earth.  

The double-disc album is divided into two disparate themes - the Earth disc channels the Washington’s view on the harsh reality of today, while Heaven finds the composer dabbling in more ethereal waters.  The album-opening “Fists of Fury” begins with bursts of staccato strings that quickly give way a to multi-layered latin rhythm and anthemic choir of vocals.  The song is the perfect encapsulation of everything Washington is capable of and serves as the defacto overture for the rest of the record. The rest of the first disc ebbs and flows between traditional fusion workouts (“Can You Hear Him”, “One of One”), and more in-the-pocket balladry (“Tiffakonkae” features some of Washington’s most tasteful playing to date).

As one would expect, the album’s second half is where Washington reaches for new heights.  From the opening minutes of the synth-laden “The Space Travelers Lullaby” through the final vocal crescendo of “Will You Sing”, Washington pushes the boundaries of his abilities as a composer in every which way.  Be it forays into new age jazz, or the revenant nods to his hard-bob forebearers, the man’s understanding and respect for the historical context of all-things-jazz is on full display throughout much of Heaven & Earth.  And where the collection deviates (with modern embellishments and percussive vamps) from the otherwise well-tread path, it works on every level.

As one would expect, the performances on Heaven & Earth (the album’s credits list dozens of musicians) are off the charts.  And while many of the obligatory piano, guitar and string solos easily earn their keep, it’s Washington’s lyrical playing that is appropriately on full display here.

As an updated take on vintage mid-70’s fusion, Heaven & Earth is a resounding success.  But to take the accolades a step further, Washington has managed to craft an impressively cohesive, long-form musical statement that stands on its own.  And all of that notwithstanding, the most impressive aspect of Heaven & Earth is that despite the colossal scope of Washington’s vision, it’s hard not to feel like the man’s just getting started.

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