The World According To Kamasi Washington

Myles Andrews-Duve takes a look at Kamasi Washington's stellar new record.
By    July 16, 2018

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Myles Andrews-Duve is part of the Arkestra.

I like to think of Kamasi Washington as an elevated spiritual entity, who goes through the same modes of life as you or I, but in a metaphysical manner. A divinity who doesn’t walk, run, or jump; he glides. He eats, but only in theory. He doesn’t talk, text, call, or email, but rather emits inter-dimensional sound waves only to be understood by the other demigods among him.

I say this only partially in jest because it’s a hell of a lot easier to accept all of that than it is to believe that a mortal human being can be as astoundingly good at anything as Kamasi is at playing the tenor saxophone. His gargantuan triple-disc debut, The Epic, sort of furthered this perception. With its late-Obama-era imagination, the record used broad strokes to paint Kamasi as an archetypal hero with galactic ambitions. The Epic was pristine—a definitive arrival that, over the course of three hours, served to enlighten many that Kamasi was more extensive than his To Pimp A Butterfly oeuvre and more rooted in the luminaries of jazz traditionalists.

It was ambitious but it worked. as introductory as The Epic was, there seemed to be a distance between Kamasi the person and Kamasi the composer in the album’s far-reaching transcendentalism. His latest, Heaven and Earth, two-sided and an epic in and of itself, redirects that narrative. The project is equally ambitious as a two-hour dyad, emphatically invoking the metaphysical but also presenting Kamasi as comparatively grounded. The message of the album is clear: it both ponders and presents Kamasi’s own contemplations on the duality of his existence in the world.

Instead of looking perpetually outward as its predecessor did, Heaven and Earth analyzes the outer world from within. “The Earth side of this album represents the world as I see it outwardly, the world that I am a part of,” wrote Kamasi in early press materials. “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.” It’s Kamasi wrestling with the present day turmoil and artifice of a nation ostensibly founded on ideals of enlightenment.

This introspection expresses itself in combative ways on opener, “Fists of Fury.” At the track’s ceremonial close, a refrain is echoed by Patrice Quinn and Dwight Trible that evokes Assata Shakur: “We will no longer ask for justice/ Instead we will take our retribution/ Our time as victims is over.” It’s the most direct militant song on any Kamasi project and it’s fitting at the outset, suggesting an immediacy in his desire to find clarity in the world’s contradictions.

The songs rumble across lush textures and harmonies before ultimately reaching a sea-parting intensity. His solos follow suit, building momentum as he runs through pentatonic patterns before arriving at an explosive, shrieking peak. He gets knocked for this apparent algorithmic approach. But fuck all that, this shit works. Because when that saxophone yells, it does so boldly and ferociously. It’s freeing. And evoking that sense of freedom has always felt like the goal of Kamasi’s music. That formula described above is pretty analogous for the essence of Heaven and Earth—he works through the seemingly entangled machinations of his mind to hopefully reach an ultimate conclusion, some equilibrium.

As a composer and songwriter, he creates lavish string, vocal, or percussion-driven soundscapes that engender the philosophies of spiritual jazz purveyors like Pharaoh Sanders and Sun-Ra. His songs drive forward as do his ambitions for mass spiritual re-enlightenment. It is both very present and effortlessly prophesying—envisioning a liberated future for the Black experience in America but wanting it delivered in the now.

Musically, Heaven and Earth displays this vision in beautiful, diverse ways. Kamasi is a world-builder. His compositions here draw influences from percussion-driven afro-caribbean soundscapes, fusion (see: the cosmic guitar solo on “Will You Sing”), and the eclectic vibe of the World Stage jazz scene of Leimert Park that he was immersed in throughout the ‘90s. There’s the inevitable traces of Coltrane in there, too. The sweeping, majestic atmosphere reminds of Mr. Giant Steps’ “Infinity.” The moments where Kamasi breaks free and calls back to his roots are some of the best. Driven by a warped pulsating bass groove, “Street Fighter Mas” is g-funk at its core, only colored by Kamasi’s vibrant textures. And “The Psalmnist” resembles Parliament and channels the inner-city soul of Freestyle Fellowship.

Heaven and Earth leave you wanting more, despite its epic run time (there actually is more). There are questions left unanswered, a resolution for societal pitfalls seemingly unfulfilled. I guess the thing about looking inward as Kamasi does here or Kendrick did on Butterfly, is that you don’t necessarily always come out with answers, but you may emerge with a deeper understanding of what is needed for eventual closure. It’s why, as the choir sings refrains such as “Dear lord, show us the way …” near the album’s close, it feels sad. Spiritualism is usually the solution we settle on when all others prove unfulfilling and the repetition of that line is a cry for answers from heaven, a search for sanctity. Let’s hope he finds it.

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