The estimable tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington has, over the past few years, earned a reputation as something of a seer. That’s partly thanks to his choice of promotional imagery. On the cover of his aptly titled breakout album, The Epic—released on the Brainfeeder label in 2015—Washington is depicted in a black-and-white photograph, holding up his horn as a sort of offering, painted planets arrayed behind him. It’s cosmic stuff. But so is his music. The Epic was a three-hour saga, featuring an excellent two-drummer band, a choir and an orchestra. And it had stylistic scope, harking back to Coltrane’s mid-’60s spiritual phase, electric Miles, Donald Byrd, Wayne Shorter, Grover Washington Jr., Fela Kuti—a potent synthesis of jazz and funk.
Washington wasn’t inventing a new subgenre, exactly, but the raw energy he brought to each track was exhilarating. Open-minded jazz aficionados saw that he’d injected a new crossover energy into the tradition, while those who didn’t know much about jazz appreciated his hip-hop bona fides. (He’s played with Snoop Dogg and contributed string arrangements and some tenor saxophone to Kendrick Lamar’s third album, To Pimp a Butterfly.) Washington’s lionization as a jazz savior, capable of spreading his ecumenical music to the masses, was mostly justified. But it put him in a precarious state. Expectations were high.
Last year, Washington released a self-assured EP, Harmony of Difference. But his true follow-up to The Epic is Heaven and Earth, a double album out now on the British label Young Turks. The record does little to dispel the notion that Washington, now 37, is a kind of musical prophet. On the front cover, he’s literally standing on water, wearing a gold-hued suit, bright crisscrossing sashes and colorful sneakers.
The album’s “Earth” side, Washington has said, represents the world as he sees it outwardly, while the “Heaven” side represents the opposite. It’s a nice thought, as far as it goes, but neither side sounds much different from the other. The album as a whole is hard to differentiate from The Epic, too. This is a good thing. It’s a sign that the language Washington’s developing has coalesced into a sturdy form. Once again, there’s a choir and orchestra. Once again, he’s joined by his excellent band, the Next Step, along with members of the West Coast Get Down, the Los Angeles music collective. Once again, there are a couple of recherché covers: a cinematic rendition of the kung-fu theme “Fists of Fury” and a brilliant take on Freddie Hubbard’s postbop composition “Hub-Tones.”
At two and a half hours, it’s a capacious record, one you can really settle into. Washington’s searching solos are alone worth the price of admission, as he deftly navigates gnashing percussion, horn and synth accompaniment. But the music is about more than just virtuosity. Listeners who were awed by Washington’s debut and now expect the same from Heaven and Earth may be disappointed. And yet that reaction would miss the point. This album feels like the next installment of a conversation Washington intends to have with the jazz tradition for some time to come. It started long before we arrived, and it will continue long after we’re gone.Originally Published