After getting a taste of Kamasi Washington‘s delectable compositions in his September ’17 EP Harmony Of Difference, picking up his new double album Heaven & Earth was a no-brainer. Having garnered critical acclaim for not only that EP last year and of course his debut album The Epic in 2015, these albums had a lot to live up to, not forgetting the rave reviews for his live show. The singles released were really exciting, offering two different styles; from the buzzing, popping and energetic “Fists of Fury” to the slow, mesmerising dreamscape of “The Space Travelers Lullaby”. Both songs offered a progression from his previous works; the large, cinematic composure style from the earlier tracks on disc one of The Epic is maximised in “Fists Of Fury”, the addition of staggered vocals a masterful touch. It took me back to films like Enter The Dragon, with the style a throwback to cinema of the 70s. “The Space Traveller’s Lullaby” in contrast is a very smooth and relaxing way to open up the second part, with gentle orchestral climaxes that feel like rushes of cool breeze. It certainly wouldn’t be out of place in a movie score either, something I’d love to see him tackle in the future.
Jazz is having another storming year after last year’s gluttonous supply, and for me these two land squarely amongst the best. It feels more experimental than even Harmony where he stepped through many different styles in a compact 30-minute slot. Kamasi and his assorted instrumentalists take the sound of classical jazz, and bend the reality around it. This host of musicians are magnificent individually in their own right, let alone in what could be a supergroup. Thundercat, Cameron Graves, Miles Mosley and Patrice Quinn contribute to the roster, bringing together a wealth of talent.
This side of the album is meant to represent how Kamasi sees the world. And it has plenty of light and dark to suit that outlook. It is more classic jazz than Heaven and I think less experimental in sax tones than The Epic, like he’s found his niche. There’s a brilliant smoothness to the composition, with Kamasi‘s sax taking a heavy lead in the mix for a few minutes, or the bass playing off the fantastic pianos to create a blanketing layer of sound. On this side, you’re lucky to get under eight minutes per song, so strap in for a ride if you intend to focus into the music.
“Tiffankonkae” is one of my favourites from this side. It is a really contrasting song throughout, a bouncy bass line plays off melancholic horns, with the climax more noisy than some of the crescendos found in earlier songs. The song is really cool, and takes the album on a nice twist. Following it, “The Invincible Youth” starts scatty, before moving into some beautiful wandering sax solos which allow you to drift away in a cloud of sound. Some articles say that he’s trying to redefine jazz, and I’m inclined to believe them, with the span of styles and mastery of each subgenre of jazz that he attempts jaw-dropping.
I found each song excels at bridging solos together, with some songs having clean vocal hooks to pull you back in afterwards, others relying instead on magnificent crescendos. Interestingly, this world view album was lighter than I expected, some of the songs feeling like a smooth celebration, others a dulcet love song. Breaking this record up and focusing on individual songs allows you to hone in on some brilliant solos, because I found this album easy to drift off to. Some might perceive it as a bad thing, and the last song for example “One on One” does pass by without much intrigue. However, it is a very calming song.
Earth had variety. Yet Heaven goes much further in experimentation, the great songwriting in “Vi Lua Vi Sol” blending a smooth love song with classic Kamasi saxophone solos, all playing off intense keys and pulsating dual percussion. That layer provided by the drummers is one of the greatest features of the album, the intense beats forming a layer, but sometimes taking full centre stage.
“Street Fighter Mas” is Kamasi‘s song which he imagined walking out to at a Street Fighter tournament. The song is damn cool to play video games to, the textures of sound are wonderfully balanced as you fight back hoards of enemies. Again, using choirs to create a thick atmosphere around the drums and horns, it is an epic of sorts and worth checking out below.
More so than in the first part, Kamasi seems to have more solos in Heaven. His talent is showcased really well within the sprawling compositions, helping to guide the songs to climaxes that put bands like Snarky Puppy to shame, despite their differences in style. Cameron Graves on piano seems to get a lot of the airtime on the record too, something I’m more than happy about, with his debut Planetary Prince having made my album of the year list in 2017. When I was lucky enough to catch Kamasi live in London at the Roundhouse at the start of May, he quipped that Graves was the only person he knew whose heads were more in the clouds than his own, and with some of these awe-inspiring solos and deft chords he plays you can feel that. The songs guide you to a higher existence, with an abundance of charm.
With “The Psalmnist”, you get a tune you just want to swagger down the street to, or blast as you cruise at sunset with the windows down. It has got a simple, bouncy feel to it, but it has complexity galore too. I wish when I saw him live that he played more of his latest content, because this would be a great song to groove to, but with the reception and raving reviews he got for his UK performances, I’m certain he’ll be back for another round. “Will You Sing” is another choice song on the album, yet again a song which could easily slot into a film soundtrack. It has some really cool piano work again, along with the trumpet that forges a path in the middle. For some reason, I imagine it fitting into Jet Li‘s film Hero nicely.
Let’s wrap this up
Having traversed these two magical hours over and over, I have to say I’m falling for it more and more each time. The mix is beautiful, I love how the album rolls around my headphones and surround sound system, the instruments located in a way that keeps you on your toes as you try to pick out the maddening number of details in this album. With him still drawing on influences like Miles Davis,but cutting out his own path, he’s composed two hours of varied, well-structured and more enjoyable songs than his last full length. This feels more accessible, which is something I sometimes balk at, but I feel this is the perfect combination between The Epic and Harmony Of Difference, the latter more accessible than this titan of an album. Listening to both Heaven & Earth in one sitting can be a slog, so attack this at your own pace. Heaven is certainly my favourite part of the double and will be battling for a spot in my top ten of the year, that’s for sure. Don’t sleep on this brilliant follow up!
Notable Tracks: “Fists of Fury”; “The Psalmnist”; “Tiffankonkae”
FFO: Snarky Puppy, Miles Davis, Cameron Graves