Only three years ago Kamasi Washington released an album that was epic by name and in nature. What made that record extraordinary wasn't just it's 170-minute plus running time, but the fact that a long-form genre record could find such a large and varied audience beyond hardcore jazz-heads in 2015. Hyperbole aside, The Epic genuinely stood as a remarkable feat in honoring jazz's progressive history and embracing the contemporary musical landscape.
"With our song, one day we'll change the world, will you sing?" is the choral grandstand to Heaven and Earth, an album so dense and epic in its execution that ensures that statement carries plenty of potency. After creating such a warranted stir with his first album, Kamasi Washington shows no sign of second album jitters, unleashing a double-headed beast of a record. Grand concepts such as these have on innumerable occasions in the past drawn unfavorable commentary, but this is a record that is unaware of any limiting factors.
How do you top an album called The Epic? If you're Kamasi Washington, you do it by moving your craft and your mind inward. On his fourth LP, the L.A. saxophonist unleashes yet another colossal batch of material, exploring an unfathomable scope of moods, genres and ideas over 16 tracks and 150 minutes.
Split into two parts — Earth ("The world that I am a part of") and Heaven ("The world that is a part of me") — Washington enlists his band the Next Step, along with the West Coast Get Down and guests like Thundercat, Ronald Bruner Jr ….
Kamasi Washington--a tenor saxophonist, bandleader, and composer with the profile of a low-level pop star--designed his second full-length album as a metaphysical dyad, unfolding over two halves that each run over an hour. Far and away the strongest musical statement of his career, it's also an exercise in contrast, if not outright contradiction. "The Earth side of this album represents the world as I see it outwardly, the world that I am a part of," Washington explained in advance press materials.
Not only is the Los Angeles-based saxophonist, composer and arranger deeply rooted in jazz, a colossal American art form long caught in a seemingly irreversible process of atrophying into a dusty museum for dry academic study. Washington also added to the challenge by reviving a spiritually enlightened, cosmically inclined marginal offshoot of his chosen genre, which was widely derided for not being 'proper jazz' even when its original practitioners were at their peak in the 1970s. Turns out that Washington's antennas were astutely tuned.
Kamasi Washington arrived on the international jazz scene from Los Angeles with a bang after the release of 2015's three-disc, three-hour The Epic. While he'd been around for a decade, playing with Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar -- whose To Pimp a Butterfly he arranged and played on -- the mammoth project turned him into jazz's perceived savior almost overnight. But he understood his own mission remarkably well and has remained undaunted by the hype.
If saxophonist Kamasi Washington's path to success was a long and arduous one, his recent body of work suggests an artist intent on making up for lost time. Graduating from UCLA's Ethnomusicology & Jazz Studies course, he spent a decade building up his reputation with gig and session work for the likes of Snoop Dogg and Raphael Saadiq before a breakthrough guest spot arranging and playing tenor sax on Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly. Signed to Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder label he unleashed the three-hour triple album The Epic, an astonishingly ambitious work deeply invested in the traditions of spiritual jazz and fusion, it's unerring sense of the good groove helping propel it to crossover success.
Ever since 2015's landmark album The Epic, Kamasi Washington has been something of an icon in returning jazz to a wider platform. Despite being a deeply layered, triple-disc album, The Epic won countless awards and high albums of the year placings not just from the traditional jazz press but also plenty of indie-rock publications too. Then last year's Harmony of Difference EP (despite being for most an album's length) consolidated Washington's status as being the real deal, with a beautiful closing track 'Truth' which spoke of the beauty in people's differences living in harmony.
With a level of attention and media focus surrounding him that is frankly unusual for a contemporary jazz musician, Kamasi Washington seems to have become something of a polarising figure. In some quarters he has been hyperbolically touted as the 'saviour of jazz' while others have dismissed him as some form of faux-spiritual charlatan. Being photographed appearing to walk on water on the cover of second album Heaven And Earth will no doubt do little to counter this notion, although this could either be wry self parody or earnest indulgence.
Much has previously been made of Kamasi Washington's work with various artists, but he needs no assistance by association when his already considerable output is this good. 'Heaven and Earth' is an album with soul jazz, spiritual jazz, jazz-funk, electro-soul and many more genre-busting approaches incorporated across 16 wondrous pieces, aspects of free rhythms nestling next to vintage seventies soul sounds, all evolved effortlessly for the 21st Century. There are very few contemporary artists with both Washington's talent and audacity of expression.