Kamasi Washington Makes Heaven a Place On Earth

On new record, the saxophonist journeys into otherworldly realms of wisdom and skill

Kamasi Washington; photo courtesy of Young Turks

As an internationally beloved saxophonist, bandleader and herald of the resurging West Coast jazz scene, Kamasi Washington has worked hard to position himself as a key player in the genre’s increasingly mainstream acceptance over the last decade.

“Music reflects the time and where people are at, and jazz is kind of an expression and open-mindedness,” he told me in 2016. “Jazz coming up means people are kind of searching for something like that.”

A searcher himself, Washington has a developed a deep and studied understanding that jazz’s foundations are built on something new. His sound, which he suggested to me may best be called “modern jazz,” channels a century of rich musical evolution into rapturously eclectic, album-length sonic narratives. Just as modal jazz folded elements of bebop, swing and hard bop into something new, Washington’s music transcends concrete placement in time and space. Like the late, storied celestial bandleader Sun Ra, Washington’s sounds incorporate big band, swing, hard bop, modal, fusion, you name it. He’s even got a flowing robe of his own to match.

On his sixth LP, Heaven & Earth, out this past Friday on Young Turks, Washington also conjures a philosophy that Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane and other space jazz spiritualists held as divine truth—that music has a wholly distinct power to elevate us toward transcendence, toward seeing the bigger connections that unite instead of divide. Heaven & Earth seeks to chronicle a trip up to space similar to that those legends have delivered in the past, largely forgoing avant and atonal arrangements in order to make the music an emotionally palpable, inviting and universal journey.

To this end, Washington told me, it’s always better to make music that’s too wide as opposed to too narrow.

“In general, people are searching for connection,” he said. “As a musician, music is a universal connection. In the end, it’s about what you’re transferring, what you’re giving. What I try to do is be wide open, you know? And play who I am.”

Heaven & Earth finds Washington play who he is by tell a journey and how a traveller can come to recognize, and respect, the power of them both forces. He’s repeating the double-album approach of his prior LP, 2015’s The Epic (a three-album set, no less) but improving on the flow and cohesion of his vision in just about every way.

“Earth” begins with a Washington’s dramatic, groovy arrangement of the theme from Bruce Lee’s “Fist of Fury,” with new lyrics that speak of resistance to oppression: “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 turn my hands/To fists of fury.”

During this opener, a mortal being is still seeking mortal solutions to mortal problems, but realizes there are instances when his body becomes a vessel for much more powerful, sacred truths.

I have two sides to myself,” Washington recently told Stereogum. “I have one that’s very much into the physical world, reading the newspaper, looking at the news, concerned about what’s going on in the world. Then I have the other side of myself that’s not concerned. I realized in making this album that that side of myself is actually really dictating the other side of myself.”

“‘Fists Of Fury”, to me, is really about the internal nature of struggle and how we have power to overcome that struggle. It’s eternal. It never ends. It’s perpetual… the reason why I see the world as having a never-ending struggle is that I imagine it having endless potential.”

The overcoming of that struggle manifests on this album through the journey from Earth to Heaven. Earth continues with a frantic shuffling piano and horn on  “Can You Hear Him?” that sounds like humans listening upward for divine voices, still burdened by their own earthen complexities. The bopping “Hubtones” shakes its low-end into a dazzling display of syncopated feeling. Washington’s childhood friend Thundercat’s virtuosic bass chops elevate the middle section of “The Invisible Youth” up even further away from our planet and builds toward the first disc’s climax—the beautiful “Testify”—a blissed-out, sung tune about the sun rising and falling while love returns and flowers bloom.

That the Heaven disc sounds more airy and floaty seems deliberate. On ”Vi Lua Vi Sol,” Washington’s solo runs have more breath work and more room space for the rest of the band to step in. On “Street Fighter Mas,” the celestial choir returns, more pronounced than on the first disc, paying homage to the video game Washington used to play at the arcade that brought nerds and gang members together for a peaceful, communal competition. The hymnal reverence of “Journey,” in all of its hushed reverence, sounds not longed for the world in its current state.

Heaven & Earth succeeds in amplifying Washington’s love of long-form jazz narratives while stretching out his capacity for new sounds and styles even further. Synth emerges on several tighter, more compact arrangements that echo the ensemble he’s been touring with since 2016, along with the shorter, punchier direction of the tunes on last year’s Harmony of Difference EP.

But perhaps the album’s greatest triumph is that it takes jazz back to an astral plane in a way that feels truly universal—relatable, accessible, and able to resonate with anyone.

Justin Joffe

Justin Joffe writes about music, art, technology, and other cultural treasures. Reach him on Twitter @joffaloff.

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