Soundtrack to cultural chaos
Kamasi Washington has made himself a space in pop music despite the difficulties posed by making jazz music in this age. The pop charts favor heavily produced, formulaic computer-generated sounds—basically the anti-jazz. Yet we are also at a cultural moment perfectly primed for a jazz explosion. In this time of unbelievable headlines and a 24-hour news cycle, jazz is the fitting chaotic, frenetic and unpredictable soundtrack. This, combined with his exceptional talent in the genre, has led to the mainstream embrace of Washington, from his appearance on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly to booking major festivals such as Coachella. With Heaven and Earth, Washington brings over two hours of jazz on the double album.
As the title suggests, Washington’s music on the album grapples with both real, material experience (Earth) and spiritual, inward experience (Heaven). The feelings of cultural unrest in present-day America run throughout the album. The music is ambitious, purposefully crafted and at times challenging in the best way.
Earth begins with a cover of the theme to Bruce Lee’s 1972 film Fists of Fury. As it builds, it features epic choral moments with the powerfully inspiring message to rise up against injustice and the refrain, “And when I’m faced with unjust injury / Then I change my hands to fists of fury.” Washington doesn’t shy away from confronting the passion and difficult feelings present during this time of cultural unrest.
The second track, “Can You Hear Him,” is a showcase of Washington’s maximalist style as it builds to huge chaos before easing out led by the sax. Washington makes it very clear that he will not tone down the more challenging aspects of jazz music to pander to an audience. While Washington does jump around musical styles throughout the album, the extended track lengths allow for full exploration of each idea.
After the chaos of the previous track, “Hubtones” begins with a great piano progression that sets the stage for a Latin-tinged jam. The percussion solo is a highlight here, and the accompanying instruments are justly muted for the display. “Connections” comes in gently, with a smooth R&B feel, nostalgic ’70s tones and also sees the return of the epic choral features. “Connections” is an example of Washington’s flexibility of style and would feel in place as part of a film score. The wailing guitar solo at the end of the track is distorted to a tone that fits the funk perfectly.
It is with the penultimate track, which features the most lyrical content, that we get the full understanding of Washington’s pop abilities. Washington manages to balance the jazz with the vocals in way that delivers a pop song without skimping on the jazz chops. Washington closes out Earth with another cinematic track “One of One.”
Heaven beings cinematically, similar to Earth but in a much different direction. Opening with “The Space Traveler’s Lullaby,” a grand orchestral performance showcasing Washington’s mastery of composition. The following tracks prove once again that Washington refuses to stick to one sound. He features strangely distorted vocals on “Vi Lua Vi Sol,” which ultimately proves to be a listenable jazz track while still allowing for improvisational play. Something that makes Heaven stand apart from Earth is its overall lower energy level, making it more easily digestible, especially for an extended listening session.
Washington has carved himself a place in the pop sphere as something of an ambassador of jazz. He can deftly maneuver from complicated improvisation to more recognizable funky tunes. With a solid crew of artists surrounding him (such as current boundary-pushing artists Flying Lotus and Thundercat), Washington is just the artist jazz needs to excite current listeners and bring in new ears as well.