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.