The Pile, Oct. 5, 2018 – Kamasi Washington’s “Heaven and Earth”

When I began this blog in 2011, I ran a few installments that I called “The Pile,” comprising primarily reviews of new releases. I soon abandoned this venture, but now I’ve decided — at least for the moment — to reinstate it as a way to keep up with material by artists I’m not writing about, and so might pass by. It sure beats yelling at the computer about the political events of the day.

These reviews are going to be mainly first impressions, based on one listening, so I’ll undoubtedly miss many nuances and subtleties. It also won’t be my best prose.

So, these things being said, here are some thoughts on Kamasi Washington’s excellent double-CD, 4-LP summer release, Heaven and Earth.

 

Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth.

Kamasi Washington didn’t get where he is by thinking small, and his 2018 release is no exception, picking up where he left off on The Epic, his 3-CD debut, and upping the ante by a couple of notches. Augmenting his sextet with a strings-and-brass orchestra and a soulful choir, Washington presents a pair of 8-tune suites, comprising 14 of his originals, a piece by trombonist Ryan Porter, and a rhythmically jacked-up, harmonically simplified reading of Freddie Hubbard’s “Hub-Tones.” It’s arena jazz, and effective arena jazz at that.

 

Washington showcases himself for much the proceedings, which is a good idea, as he’s by far the most interesting soloist in his band. His big-sound, melody-oriented, broad-gestures, tell-the-story approach to playing the tenor saxophone, evokes – to these ears – a cleaner, more well-scrubbed Pharaoh Sanders-John Gilmore admixture on the mothership and Gene Ammons crossed with Teddy Edwards crossed with Eddie Harris in the urban lounge back in the early ‘70s. That period seems to be the source of much of Washington’s sonic and harmonic vocabulary, yanked into the present by the forceful refractions of the rhythmic cadences of hip-hop by paired-off drumsetters Ronald Bruner, Jr. and Tony Austin — both brilliant — on most of the tracks.  They listen intently to each other, and even though they don’t interact with the soloists in the manner of, say, their World Stage mentor Billy Higgins, which is what I usually want to hear (I’ll emphasize, that’s a matter of personal taste), Washington’s rhythmic prowess is so powerful that I don’t miss it here. Washington had ample opportunity to hone the ability to speak through his horn during a decade holding the tenor chair with the Gerald Wilson, whose ideas seem to infuse elements of the horn voicings and, more broadly, the programmatic, imaginary soundtrack attitude that seems to be Washington’s subtext for much of the notes and tones. Maybe it’s just me, but I hear hints of Terence Blanchard’s film writing as well.

 

My favorite track on disk 1, titled “Earth,” is “The Invincible Youth,” which opens with a free, Sun Ra-esque fanfare, and resolves into intense changes that Washington gobbles up with that stentorian, wailing, testifying sound. Bassist Miles Mosley, a groove-master, follows with a cogent, guitaristic solo of his own. I also like the disk-concluding “One Of One,” on which Washington utilizes the choir effectively during the opening section, then leads the sermon on a spirit-raising declamation that builds and builds and builds, before trumpeter Dontae Winslow builds it even more, propelled  by an unrelenting Afro-coro on which Robert Searight joins the Austin-Bruner drum tandem, intermixed with Kahlil Cummings and Allakoi Peete on hand drums — Steven “Thundercat” Bruner is drum-like, too, as the second bassist.

 

It’s hard to discern in what way Washington takes a different approach on the second disk, “Heaven,” though he does give the rest of the band a bit more space for self-expression. Cameron Graves (acoustic piano) and Brandon Coleman (keyboards) engage in fleet, quick-witted exchange after Washington’s turbulent solos on “Song For The Fallen,” which includes a lovely choral passage (you can hear echoes of Blanchard’s writing here). In concerts several years ago and on his Mack Avenue album, Graves tended to let his fingers “wag the dog,” as it were, and does so again on a fleet opening solo “Show Us The Way.” Washington fulfills that mandate on his solo, as he does on “Street Fighter Mas,” machine-gunning the notes to precisely choreographed, chant-like three-drumkit accompaniment. When asked to slow down at the top of the album-ending “Will You Sing,” Graves showcases his lovely touch and gift for melodic expression, counterpointed by the polyphonic drums and the ascendant choir.

 

It’s a strong, erudite, passionate recording, and sustains interest throughout. The participants stay cool-headed even at the most heated moments, and for the most part — not always — avoid the temptation to go for ‘house’ over musicality. Washington has a special vision that straddles past and present, populist but not watered-down, and has a band to write for that can convey his musical intentions. His ever expanding fan base shows how effectively knows how to project that vision. A BMF for real.

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2 Comments

Filed under Kamasi Washington, The Pile

2 responses to “The Pile, Oct. 5, 2018 – Kamasi Washington’s “Heaven and Earth”

  1. Den NC USA

    Hello,
    I’m a newbie to your site, but wanted to add my appreciation for all your fine work for you “tentative” review of Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth”. I appreciate that honestly in saying first listen. Often, a sensitve listener gets alot from a first listen, and of course, you know your stuff.
    I’m here to add that I’ve not even got to listen yet to the new KW’s newest release, but wanted to add my quick thoughts to your mix.
    I’m an old jazz fan, and see and feel much more going on with KW than many jazz experts. First, he’s got image on his mind, and got an amazing intro video in command of technique on his website for the video of:
    Kamasi Washington – Street Fighter Mas

    I live in the Triangle NC so near enough to Duke University to have recently seen a major three screen art video – JOHN AKOMFRAH: PRECARITY, It was a study/portrait of Buddy Bolden, the first jazz artist, but last to not be recorded, so seminal in the influence only. I bring this up to say that KW’s video is on the same VERY HIGH QUALITY level of image and command. I was really impressed with that, as well as the music.
    Also, wanted to throw out the thought that Isaac Hayes comes to mind for me when I think of what KW’s doing, in the sense of contemporary popular music and yet, extension of same. That Isaac was never thought of as a “Jazz” performer was always a loss for me, since I think of him as certainly a “Jazz Singer” of the first rank. His work is never anything but well done. And his extensions of time and intimacy were singular for me, and very emotional.
    I feel that extentionary force from KW in both the image/art sense (SUN RA) of jazz tradition, as well as the SOUL force.

    So just wanted to kudos KW for all he does, with the hope that he continues to feel and be the force for unity and harmony with jazz and soul unification.

    Best wishes for the future,
    Dennis

  2. Pingback: The Pile, Oct. 7, 2018 — Elio Villafranca’s “Cinque” Plus Interviews From 2013 and 2014 | Today Is The Question: Ted Panken on Music, Politics and the Arts

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