At last year’s Love Supreme festival Kamasi Washington stuck around and enjoyed the festival, on his own, mingling with punters, and seemingly enjoying the experience, at odds with what many pro musicians – through either fame, reasons of itinerary, or just plain lack of interest – rarely bother to do. Despite the otherworldly spiritual Sun Ra meets Pharaoh Sanders bearing of the man, Kamasi is as close to an every-man as a jazzer could get. He revels in music, full stop. He also likes arcade games and people. He is not (god forbid!) the saviour, but he is, in short, helping to bring jazz back to the people.
Like some of those big names of the 70s – the last commercial heyday for ‘jazz’ (Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, George Benson, Mahavishnu Orchestra), Washington isn’t all about jazz, although it is the foundation. On top of that there are also healthy chunks of choral, orchestral, funk, salsa, cinematic and even urban pop tones. Crucially, he largely foregoes atonal sounds and irregular time signatures, in fashioning music that is for, the most part, accessible whilst retaining a purity and spiritual awareness that will satisfy all but the most hardcore masochists of jazz. That is its ultimate triumph.
‘The Earth side of this album represents the world as I see it outwardly, the world that I am a part of,” says Washington about the concept that lies behind the album. “The Heaven side of this album represents the world as I see it inwardly, the world that is a part of me. Who I am and the choices I make lie somewhere in between.” Moreover, Heaven and Earth finds Washington mining the musical technique known as ‘counterpoint,’ which he defines as “The art of balancing similarity and difference to create harmony between separate melodies.” This is what Heaven and Earth largely achieves throughout its incredible two and a half hour journey.
The pre-album release of the elasticated funk-jazz of ‘Street Fighter Mas’, and ‘The Space Travellers Lullaby’, were smart moves. Some of the least jazzy music on the album, particularly the paean to teenage arcade gaming, it gently encourages the lesser informed to have a graze upon everything on offer here. What a bountiful, rich feast it is too. From the powerful Latin-lounge crossover of ‘Fists of Fury’, a cover of the kung fu film soundtrack classic of 1972, to the final track on the first half of the album, (confusingly at first, the ‘Earth’ half of the album precedes the ‘Heaven’ half), to the complex dynamics of the sax and trumpet hard bopping ‘One on One’, Washington and band display their undoubted qualities as players; the sax of Kamasi never hogging the show. Indeed there are dozens of musicians involved throughout, the key ones being keyboardist extraordinaire Cameron Graves, trumpeter Dontae Winslow, and double bassist Miles Mosely, around whom coalesce a fantastic number of vocalists, string and brass players, as well as multiple drummers in creating highly textured, spacious yet dynamic kaleidoscopic music, for the most part composed and arranged by Washington, with virtuosic solos dotted around here and there. A riot of jazz, on say ‘The Invincible Youth’, comfortably snuggles up to the gentler ‘Tiffakonkae’, despite the sweat-inducing dual drumming action, while the key-shifting space-jazz of ‘Hub-Tones’ is grounded by a bossa/salsa groove. Throughout, the songs never completely settle, always shifting in atmosphere, tone and texture, whilst remaining earth-bound, as it were.
The second half of the album (discarding the ‘extra’ 50 minute disc of ‘The Choice’ which wasn’t made available to reviewers pre-release) continues this incredible journey. From the luxurious, multi-textured, dense, and cinematic orchestral jazz of ‘The Space Travellers Lullaby’ to the piano and sax leads that inform the mighty ‘Show Us The Way’, via the byways of the gentler salsa grooves and vocoder-laced vocals of ‘Vi Lua Vi Sol’.
Once in a blue moon the elements don’t always gel, such as on ‘Connections’ where massed choral voices too abruptly disrupt the jazz serenity, and via the rather stereotyped spiritual lyricism of Patrice Quinn on ‘Journey’, but these are rarities. Heaven and Earth is an extraordinary work that takes The Epic, makes it even more expansive and eclectic. Its musical focus ever-shifting from the serene to the chaotic but with melody always at its heart. It’s jazz for those who may not know or even understand jazz: Washington usually able to find a way through the often noose-tightening structures of jazz to get straight to the heart of music. Music that should be soulful, a little playful, thoughtful, and can cover all the bases from a blissful serenity to a chaotic musical riot, but with melody and rhythm holding it all together.