With a level of attention and media focus surrounding him that is frankly unusual for a contemporary jazz musician, Kamasi Washington seems to have become something of a polarising figure. In some quarters he has been hyperbolically touted as the ‘saviour of jazz’ while others have dismissed him as some form of faux-spiritual charlatan. Being photographed appearing to walk on water on the cover of second album Heaven And Earth will no doubt do little to counter this notion, although this could either be wry self parody or earnest indulgence.
The reality, inevitably, is somewhere in between the two extremes. Jazz musicians have been innovating restlessly for decades – it is simply that much of this has gone unnoticed beyond what are often small, self sustaining scenes. This is not a music that needs saving, but there is certainly little harm in an outward looking figure with one eye on presentation and a big marketing budget helping to bring it to different and new audiences. As for any accusations of charlatanism, Washington’s band in full flight are a powerful and kinetic proposition with a degree of showmanship suitable for the bigger venues they now visit.
Perhaps the most interesting and important aspect of all this is that we currently have a set of jazz musicians both in the US and here in the UK (Ezra Collective, Nubiya Garcia and Sons Of Kemet among them) being programmed alongside other forms of music. When Miles Davis shared a bill with The Grateful Dead or Charles Lloyd played at big pop and rock festivals, there was a genuine ‘shock of the new’. For all the talk of Kamasi Washington as a revolutionary, little about his music actually feels unique or innovative and much of it is heavily tinted with retro-nostalgia. On Heaven And Earth he frequently looks back, whether it be by including a version of Freddie Hubbard’s Hub-Tones or borrowing heavily from Stevie Wonder on Testify.
The Epic offered something bold and confident, delivered with an often fiery and compelling intensity. It is difficult to avoid the sense that Heaven And Earth at least in part seeks to repeat the trick – slightly more compact as a mere double album (although there is also a bonus EP, The Choice, not provided to critics) but now somewhat overburdened with added elements – the choirs and strings sometimes feeling superfluous and exhibitionist. There is now something a little macho and questionable in Washington’s preoccupation with producing music that is (sometimes redundantly) gargantuan. That being said, much of it is undeniably forceful. The opening take on the Fists Of Fury theme is an accessible and energising route in, its layers of percussion, strings and voices immediately pushing home Washington’s aesthetic. Washington refashions this Bruce Lee movie theme as a statement of defiance and protest. The production values have also clearly expanded since The Epic with ghostly reverb, attacking synth patches, treated vocals on Vi Lua Vi Sol and all manner of other effects enhancing the sometimes psychedelic, hypnotic quality of the music (although sometimes the produced atmosphere does seem to flatten out any sense of internal dynamics within the ensemble).
For the most part, Washington eschews the rhythmic trickery and harmonic intricacy of much contemporary jazz to focus on consciously direct melodies and harmonies. This is perhaps why some of the over-writing now feels slightly gimmicky. Can You Hear Him is a simple but affecting theme that simply does not need or benefit from its multiple layers of sound. Some of the improvising is showboating, with minimal interest in motivic development, narrative or creating space. Sound-wise, Washington himself often resembles Maceo Parker more than John Coltrane, and its not hard to see why audiences connect with his directness and projection. When rhythm does drive the agenda, as on the crisp, well executed reinterpretation of Hub Tones, the ideas are not particularly novel to anyone familiar with contemporary jazz of recent years, but there is always something thrilling about the driving, forward motion in the music, even on gentler pieces such as Connections or Tiffakonkae.
The concept for Heaven And Earth is intended to demonstrate a contrast between the Earth disc’s view of the world as it is and the Heaven disc’s more inward perspective. The Space Traveller’s Lullaby certainly arrives bathed in celestial cliche – but whether there is actually enough contrast throughout to merit the conceptual framework is open for debate. Street Fighter Mas has a lithe, appealing half time groove and The Psalmist is a direct and engaging feature for trombonist Ryan Porter. If anything, the Heaven disc has more space and depth, but it never seems to step too far away from the sound world established on the Earth disc.
If jazz is a music of restlessness, experimentation and a drive to blur the boundaries between what is composed and what is improvised, then Heaven And Earth falls short of the standard of imagination and creativity in much contemporary jazz. But it is clearly trying to do something different. It strives for boldness and muscular imposition, and aims to stir, excite and inspire. If Washington’s music opens the door for new audiences to explore a wider range of improvised music, it is undoubtedly a positive thing. Here in the UK in 2018, Julian Siegel has released one of his strongest recordings with Vista, pianist Pete Lee has produced a deeply personal and resonant blend of influences from within and beyond the jazz tradition on The Velvet Rage, Binker And Moses have released a third album of high intensity, technically impressive duo improvisation recorded live at Dalston’s Total Refreshment Centre, Dinosaur have immersed themselves in playful synth sounds on Wonder Trail and Anton Hunter has finally released a recording of Article XI, the impressive suite of music he first presented at the Manchester Jazz Festival in 2014. US jazz has produced one of the year’s most confrontational and imaginative works in drummer-composer Dan Weiss’ Starebaby. This is a healthy, diverse, multi-faceted music that should be approached critically in much the same way as any other genre. Jazz is also a form of music where the expression of the individual and the role of the collective should not be seen as being in conflict with each other, and the health of the music should never be allowed to rest on the shoulders of any one individual performer.