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Kamasi Washington: Heaven and Earth (Young Turks)

Review of album by acclaimed saxophonist

Cover of Kamasi Washington album Heaven and Earth
Cover of Kamasi Washington album Heaven and Earth

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.

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