The Lowdown: After announcing himself on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and arriving in his full jazz glory on his gargantuan triple-album debut The Epic, saxophonist and band leader Kamasi Washington fulfills the promise of his huge 2015 with a follow-up double album billed as nothing less than a metaphysical look at all of creation.
The Good: Washington’s expertise as an arranger still drops jaws with ease; witness his enlivening take on Freddie Hubbard’s “Hubtones,” or his transformation of the Bruce Lee B-movie theme “Fists of Fury” into a noir-tinged rallying anthem for black dignity and justice.
Though he plays his sax raw, he’s matched at all turns by his friends the Next Step and the West Coast Get Down; in particular, bassist Miles Mosley and twin drummers Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr.’s contributions to Earth (“Can You Hear Him,” “The Invincible Youth”) form the kind of rhythm section you’d check the liner notes for.
Befitting the title, Heaven & Earth also contains Washington’s most explicitly spiritual material since 2008’s underground record Light of the World; if more churches played songs like “Journey” and “Will You Sing” on Sundays, those sanctuaries might be standing room only.
The Bad: Even excellent records have their fault, however small, and Heaven & Earth is no exception. Occasionally, the energy flags on the more contemplative (but no less engaging) Heaven, and the sheer volume and quality of ostentatious solos might leave you feeling overstimulated during an extended listen. If you think these sound like complaints that reside at the low end of the seriousness scale, you’d be right.
The Verdict: After claiming his place in the spotlight by overwhelming force with The Epic, Kamasi Washington capitalizes on both his newfound fame and his journeyman work ethic to produce a follow-up that’s more intimate and just as daring at the same time. Listening to Heaven & Earth will give you a better sense of Washington, the man and the artist, as well as the moods and textures of the America in which he resides. It’ll also give you the chance to say you heard him when he was still, it seems, on the ascent towards the heights of his considerable powers. What a lucky time to own a record player.
Essential Tracks: “Fists of Fury”, “The Invincible Youth”, “The Space Traveler’s Lullaby”, and “Will You Sing”