Jazz can be a little confusing. Since its roots in the early 1920s, listeners’ definitions of jazz have since changed drastically. Known as one of the only true original American artforms, its ever expanding characteristics and development of subgenres are truly daunting. This might contribute to why many older generations believe the genre is on the way out. However, millennial favorite Sebastian from “La La Land” might have been overreacting a bit when he said that jazz is dying. Kamasi Washington’s newest album, Heaven and Earth, is a pristine example of how jazz is thriving.
The album itself is huge: Spanning just over two and a half hours, a full listen is certainly a commitment. However, even after my first full listen, I never found myself dozing off. Although there are a few tracks that don’t hit as hard as others, they all hold their own unique characteristics.
There are three sections to the album. The first section, “Earth,” represents “the world as I see it outwardly, the world that I am part of,” Washington explained prior to the release of the album. The second half, “Heaven,” represents “the world as I see it inwardly. Who I am and the choices I make.” However, a week after the release of the album, Washington released an EP titled The Choice, with a similar cover to Between Heaven and Earth. Apparently, this release was included with physical copies of the album, but was recently released digitally. It fits well in the overall context of the album, but brings about new musical concepts (as well as a Carol King and a Five Stairsteps cover).
The tracks are at once dense and transparent. Heaven and Earth is so different, much like Washington’s previous full-length album, The Epic, from any other jazz album I’ve ever heard, and this is largely thanks to the wide range of tonalities achieved through varying instrumentation.
From the very get-go, a full orchestra and choir accompany a full rhythm section to create an overwhelming sheet of sound that is harmonically rich and full within the first 30 seconds of the opening track, “Fists of Fury.”
Without getting into the ongoing debate over what constitutes as jazz, I will say that this album does take a lot of notes from jazz albums of a varying character. Not only does he directly reference the likes of Freddie Hubbard or Ron Porter (who’s also featured on the album), but in his compositions and solos, it’s easy to see how artists like Wayne Shorter, Thundercat, Chris Potter and even Max Roach influenced his work.
This choir and orchestra are so unique and characteristic of Washington’s music, but even when they’re not used, tracks like “Hub-Tones” and “The Invincible Youth” feel full by taking on different styles and bringing other instrument groups to shine. On “The Invincible Youth” for example, Cameron Graves and Thundercat’s playing truly shines and fills a space that feels appropriate and rich.
The “Heaven” section of the album was where this album really differed from some for Kamasi’s previous work. Tracks like “The Space Travelers Lullaby” and “Song for the Fallen” truly went in directions I was not anticipating, and they fit the inward direction Washington strived for. “Show Us the Way” is an interesting callback to The Epic’s opening track, “Change of the Guard,” and the closing track, “Will You Sing,” is a fantastic closer that sums up the album’s themes nicely.
However, sometimes these grand instrumentations presented in the album feel undeserved. These epic moments seem to pop up in every other track, and they seem to consume the track. Don’t get me wrong, the choir and orchestra sound absolutely breathtaking, but because they hit hard right in the beginning, middle and end, the album reaches several climaxes without subjecting the listener to any other experience.
Along with this, Washington’s solos sometimes feel similarly structured. They’re technically and artistically amazing. As a saxophonist myself, I’m blown away by his sound and technique. However, they often take the same direction throughout songs and utilize the same extended techniques every time. They’re mind blowing solos, but it feels like my mind is being blown in the same way every song.
These complaints may seem really petty, and that’s because they are. This album as a whole feels like a complete sonic stroke of genius. The fact that Washington can yet again create an album lasting over two and a half hours while keeping the material fresh and consistent is certainly an accomplishment.
While many see Washington’s music as the resurgence of jazz in American popular culture, I wouldn’t quite say that myself. Jazz has been growing and advancing since its conception and continues to do so today, even before Kamasi rushed onto the scene. However, because of Washington’s forward thinking and collaboration throughout generes, Heaven and Earth is an album that sets new standards for modern jazz musicians (and every other musician, for that matter) for years to come.