Kamasi Washington is, inarguably, the biggest mainstream star in modern Jazz music. After finding breakout success on Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 masterpiece, To Pimp A Butterfly as an instrumentalist and band leader, Washington would go on to drop his own debut, The Epic just two months later to a wash of critical acclaim and fanfare.
The record itself clocked in at just shy of three hours, printed as a triple LP on vinyl, and seamlessly danced from genre to genre, instrument to instrument, without ever once dragging or feeling bloated. It truly was a groundbreaking album that presented many mainstream fans with a a powerful exposure to just what is possible within the Jazz confines. This was followed by the Harmony of Difference EP, which I reviewed positively, though it was clearly a few short and ultimately unimportant buildups to one excellent track at the end. With such an impressive early discography, and a hungry cult following, Kamasi Washington had a lot to live up to. Luckily, he did that and more.
Clocking in at around 150 minutes, Heaven and Earth is a triumphant sophomore release. Unlike its predecessor, this album finds the time to strike and fully develop several different tones and ideas. Tracks like “Street Fighter Mas,” and my personal favorite, “The Space Travelers Lullaby” use a powerful brass section and fascinating chord progressions to give off quite the ominous feel, while songs like “Hub-Tones” are almost playful, piano-driven melodies.
The latin-esque drumming which I criticized on the EP is back in full force, but this time much better utilized. The opener, “Fists of Fury,” as well as “Vi Lua Vi Sol,” benefit from this addition, and draw a fun danceability from the latin influence.
Kamasi has also, now fully integrated the choir into his tool box, as it makes an appearance on almost every song. Beyond that, tracks like “Testify,” and “Journey” even feature prominent solo vocal performances which add yet another layer to such a deep record.
Of course, no Kamasi album can be reviewed without mention of two key aspects. The first of these is Washington’s unparalleled abilities on the saxophone, which are highlighted on “Song for the Fallen” and on an unbacked solo at the end of “The Space Travelers Lullaby,” which is perhaps the highlight of the entire project.
The second of these, is the bass guitar work of modern jazz staple, Thundercat. He turns in an especially inspired performance on “The Psalmist,” but his signature sound can be heard throughout every track.
In addition, the drum and piano work on this album are fantastic. The drums seem to never stop, and though much less cymbal heavy than on previous Washington projects, they are no less pronounced. The final two tracks, “Show Us the Way,” and “Will You Sing” are structured around piano motifs, and the latter in particular is simply gorgeous.
The group is at their best, however, on tracks like “Tiffakonkae” and “The Invincible Youth.” Here, Kamasi returns to his hectic roots. The tracks function like unbridled lunacy, and at first may seem quite unlistenable. But instead, the group wields the chaos, often letting it slip to silence, before building it back to an explosive resolution. The fast tempos and often clashing melodies and rhythms ultimately serve their purpose, but at first are simply overwhelming. These moments are the highlights of this album.
There is very little to complain about here, but I must address what there is. The very few appearances made by the electric guitar are very poorly integrated. “Connections” stands out as a particularly egregious example. The lyricism is often week as well, and while this is hardly a common complaint for an album like this, it is noticeable on a few vocal parts.
There is no question that Kamasi has done it again. Very rarely does someone begin their career with three bonafide masterpieces as he now has, and it is even more rare for such excellent and experimental Jazz to be brought so far into the mainstream. At two and a half hours, Heaven and Earth is quite a slog, but it’s an enjoyable one at that, and I can’t wait to hear what this man does next.
HEAR THE ALBUM: https://open.spotify.com/album/2aBgwU4zIm1tekGzphKYp8