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Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth

July 1, 2018

I recently saw Kamasi Washington at The Current & The Walker Art Center’s mini-festival Rock The Garden. What a delight it is, that a jazz artist like Kamasi Washington has crossed over to the indie-rock and hip hop audiences. The Rock The Garden audience loved Kamasi’s late afternoon set. Although Kamasi’s music is accessible, this is not watered down jazz-lite, it is real jazz. Unlike, the overly orthodox young lion movement of the 80s (e.g. Wynton Marsalis), Kamasi is more open-minded. He is as much influenced by Coltrane, as he is by electric Miles and NWA. In Kamasi’s own words:

“We’ve now got a whole generation of jazz musicians who have been brought up with hip-hop. We’ve grown up alongside rappers and DJs, we’ve heard this music all our life. We are as fluent in J Dilla and Dr Dre as we are in Mingus and Coltrane.”

I was crazy over Kamasi’s 2015 mega release The Epic and his 2017 mini release Harmony of Difference. Heaven and Earth is equally ambitious as those two albums. It is another long work (almost three hours spread over two CDs/four LPs plus a bonus EP). I like it just as much as his first two – even a little more. Kamasi seems to have become both more confident and playful.  Kamasi pre-released a couple of songs on streaming services and I was pumped for the full release on vinyl.  I headed down to the Electric Fetus first thing release Friday to pick it up (not for the uncommitted at sixty bucks).

Serious jazz heads have been dismissive of Kamasi, accusing him as being too derivative (Pharoah Sanders is often mentioned and I get that). I hear his influences, but standing on the shoulders of your elders is hardly a crime in music – it is what you do in music. Kamasi’s originality is his writing and arrangements -they  are complex and mix many jazz flavors. On paper, his diversity looks like a hot mess, but out of the speakers it sounds perfect. Let’s face it, success in the music business is a bit of magic – and for a jazz musician to dent pop culture is nothing short of a miracle. Kamasi has the right look, the right origin story, the right connections, perfect timing (he sat on The Epic for three years waiting for the perfect moment to release it – thank you Kendrick!), but most importantly he has the chops and the balls to deliver them.

Kamasi has assembled great players both on his albums and for his live shows. What is really cool to me is that the players are all of the same generation and from the same place. Kamasi is a member of The West Coast Get Down (WCGD). WCGD is a collaborative group of musicians all born and raised in Los Angeles, CA. They play on each other’s albums and back various funk and hip hop artists/groups.

Kamasi is a guy who puts serious thought into his releases. This time he has grouped the songs into two sections: Heaven and Earth (and a third called The Choice). Per Kamasi’s Tweet:

“The Earth side represents the world as I see it outwardly, the world that I am a part of. The Heaven side represents the world as I see it inwardly, the world that is a part of me.”

The compositions and arrangements follow the same pattern as his last two releases: his touring combo, strings, vocals (soloists, duets and choir) and staring his West Coast Get Down buddies.

With almost three hours of music to absorb it is going to take me a while to fully digest Heaven And Earth (plus there is a NEW Coltrane album out). But I can tell after several listens that this is going to be near the top of my 2018 best of list. If you liked Kamasi’s first two releases, then you are going to like this one. If you have never listened to Kamasi, I suggest sampling the single/video from Heaven and Earth, “Street Fighter Mas” before taking the three-hour plunge.

The more I listen to this album the more I like it. Despite its length, there are no lags. It is brilliantly arranged, recorded and played. This album is stuffed with solos from lots of instruments – not just horn and sax. There are some serious work outs.

One of the most important instructors in my appreciation of jazz was Woody Shaw’s Rosewood album. Although it sounds nothing like Rosewood, Kamasi’s Heaven and Earth reminds me of the Woody masterpiece because of its rich arrangements that are slightly upped by the solos. As it should be – it’s jazz. Like Rosewood, it has great songs. Kamasi writes great jazz songs – sorry great songs period – no need to qualify.

Heaven and Earth is a rich blend of jazz and soul – heavy on the jazz side. I feel like Kamasi has fully embraced his hip hop soul. This is not a hip hop album with some horns. This is 100% jazz by a musician who fully understands the time he is working in (the hip hop era). He borrows from 70s soul and funk to inform his jazz decisions just like today’s beat makers sample that music to inform hip hop. Jazz has always played off pop music. Hell it was pop music once – it knows.

Quick review of vinyl: it is a nice simple and informative package. The cover art is perfect in capturing the Kamasi brand. The pressing is a bit in the red at times, but that is kind of cool because it gives it an urgent feel. I highly advise the Tidal Hi Fi version if streaming – there is a big difference over Spotify.

PS – as if this album was not big enough, Kamasi has hidden a five song vinyl EP in the gatefold of the LP version (you have to cut through a perforated edge on the top of the middle gatefold to retrieve it). It is now on streaming services too – titled The Choice. It includes three originals, as well as cover versions of Carole King and Gerry Coffin’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and the Five Stairsteps’ “Ooh Child.”

Congratulations Kamasi, you have not been ruined by success but enhanced by it. A rare accomplishment.

How to retrieve The Choice:

Per Kamasi’s tweet – Illustration: Gaurab Thakali

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4 Comments
  1. You converted me with his first album. Man do I like his sound. We’ve talked before about how music repeats in self, not a lot of new ideas. I think we found an exception. Good stuff Axl

    • I have seen him live three times now and he simplifies his sound, but kind of rocks it. It really works with a rock audience despite it being jazz. He may jumpstart an interest in jazz in the same way the jazz rock cats did in the 70s. Highly recommend live if you get the opportunity.

      • My youngest guy digs him a lot. It could be a show that we catch together. My daughter took me to Sonny a few years back. Yeah he certainly has my ear for new music. I hear all sorts of past influence in it but he is creating his own thing which I dig and respect especially when it works.

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