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Kamasi Washington - Heaven and Earth (Album Review)

Tuesday, 26 June 2018 Written by Jacob Brookman

On Kamasi Washington’s second solo record, ‘Heavenand Earth’, the L.A. bandleader has called up an impressive team of players including Tony Austin, Ronald Bruner, Jr., Brandon Coleman, Cameron Graves, Terrance Martin, Miles Mosley and Thundercat. The result is a distinguished double-album of rich intensity that channels galactic fusion, sounds from ‘70s blaxploitation and sprawling jazz spirituals.

Standouts include the opener, Fists of Fury (based on the theme of the Bruce Lee film), and Street Fighter Mas - a track that adopts a particular blend of G-funk and downtempo grooves led by the gloriously sleazy bass of Thundercat.

The latter is one of the more restrained compositions, and the horn work of Dontae Winslow flourishes here with a restrained solo that makes elegant use of the mute.

It’s a marvellous piece made all the more effective by its placement between the complex Latin rhythms of Vi Lua Vi Sol and a 12-minute psychedelic epic called Song for the Fallen.

The album’s textural complexity is its main challenge. Though broken up into the dual concepts of life - ‘Earth’ - and spirituality - ‘Heaven’ - the music does not feel directly programmed to the themes. That is because Washington’s passion for maximalist arrangements appears to trump formal concerns. It may be that he finds it difficult to separate the concepts within his own headspace, but the album nonetheless struggles at times because of it.

A good example of this is track two on the ‘Earth’ disc: Can You Hear Him. An industrious, workmanlike opening is soon a distant memory as free sax, electric piano and a choir join in to create the kind of spiritual sonic frenzy one might expect at an evangelical gangbang in an asylum during a bombing raid. From here we fall back into a quieter, laconic shuffle, before immediately returning to frenetic mayhem again for the finale. The track works on its own, but not in the context of the album.

As group of compositions, ‘Heaven and Earth’ easily stands up to Washington’s debut three disc offering, the appropriately titled ‘The Epic’. Yet, it doesn’t yet feel like he has reached the peak of his craft. One reason is that there are simply too many musical elements her: it's occasionally nauseating.

There is something ineffably pleasing about jazz fusion that reins in the instruments - think ‘Kind of Blue’ or ‘Return to Forever’. Such restraint not only feels tidier, it actually feels more creative and competitive in that way that the best jazz often is. But on its own terms (maximalist fusion) ‘Heaven and Earth’ is a sensational record that should continue Washington’s deserved ascent. It also, it must be said, would be amazing to see it performed live.



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