Kamasi Washington, Still in an Epic Mindset on ‘Heaven and Earth’

Posted June 20, 2018 4:37 p.m. EDT

“The Epic,” the tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s big debut on the national stage three years ago, worked partly because it functioned as a provocation — an act of extravagant ambition. Jazz loses a lot of young people with its fixation on history and esoterica. “The Epic,” though historically rooted, provided the opportunity for another kind of buy-in. It was reaching up, not back, soaring toward some other galaxy, suggesting that late-Obama progressivism could use a strong hit of transcendental thinking to make its optimism real.

What Washington captured was music that seemed like it should have been unrecordable: It had an orchestra; a choir; not one jazz combo but effectively two (double bass, double drums, keyboard and organ as well as piano, plus a line of horns). Listening to all those textures and harmonies crushed against each other and compressed into a studio mix, you thought, “This would be immeasurably cool live.” (You were not wrong.)

But “The Epic” let a listener understand all that, then tried to deliver something stupendous anyway. And you inevitably adopted its ambition, agreed to dream big along with it. It worked.

This week Washington releases his follow-up, a double album titled “Heaven and Earth.” Like its predecessor (and last year’s “Harmony of Difference” EP, composed for a commission at the Whitney Biennial), it is about a big concept — this time, the interplay between human consciousness and collective action — and it has got the full orchestra and choir. Washington and the band started working on it in 2016, during a manic year of touring, playing the “Epic” material onstage almost every night. One mammoth album became another.

It is a bit surprising that he would recommit to this same formula. It needs to overwhelm you in order to work; how long can one stubborn approach do that? I had thought I would soon be finding out what Washington sounded like on record in a more modest configuration, putting his scorching tenor saxophone out front.

But he has reason to stick to what has suited him — and in some small ways, he does expand on it. “Heaven and Earth” starts with a cover of the theme song from the Bruce Lee film “Fist of Fury”; Washington retitles it in the plural — “Fists of Fury” — and bestows a plain-spoken chorus on it, more directly militant than anything on “The Epic.” The vocalists Patrice Quinn and Dwight Trible intone: “Our time as victims is over/We will no longer ask for justice/Instead we will take our retribution.” This album dreams boldly; it also makes demands.

On “Street Fighter Mas,” he pulls back into a trademark blend of G-funk and fat-pulse drumming, but the firmly holstered groove has more swagger than anything on “The Epic.” The trumpeter Dontae Winslow, who was not on the previous album, caps the track with a subtly affecting solo.

Yet there are also moments of almost direct overlap with “The Epic.” On “Testify,” a jouncing and catchy vehicle for Quinn (whose singing offers rewards at every turn), Washington clearly recycles the pacing and even the harmonic design of “The Rhythm Changes” from “The Epic.” And on “Show Us the Way,” the pianist Cameron Graves pounds a pattern distinctly reminiscent of his old part in “Change of the Guard.”

As a soloist, Washington still tends to start off in a low, rapped babble, and end in dry, rafters-level screams. He uses little patterns to make big proclamations, often landing on the ninth note of a scale (the classic, inquisitive, top-of-the-jazz-chord tone).

Washington still suffers gentle disdain from some in New York, where the international jazz scene is unofficially headquartered. It’s a town he’s never felt obligated to join — or to beat.

A common criticism is that his music is not doing anything new — it is a classic old complaint, and it does not stick here. Yes, there are precedents for using lots of voices or strings to a high-tide effect (McCoy Tyner’s “Song of the New World,” Bobby Hutcherson’s “Now,” Max Roach’s choral works). But Washington plants his music in somewhat different soil, pulling rhythms from the Caribbean and Los Angeles’s fusion-driven jazz scene of the 1970s and ‘80s, as well as the city’s more Afrocentric exponents. And as he corrals dozens of carefully tracked instruments — both electric and acoustic — he also thinks and operates like a contemporary producer.

He wrote almost every tune on “Heaven and Earth,” as well as “The Epic,” and he arranged and produced both albums. He belongs in conversations about production and sound design, alongside Flying Lotus (who put out “The Epic”) and Thundercat (who’s featured on both albums).

On “Heaven and Earth” there is a balance between big-stroke conceptualism — the first CD, “Earth,” is meant to represent worldly preoccupations; the second, “Heaven,” explores utopian thought — and the workmanlike reality of collaboration. The two collections do not vary significantly in terms of sound; instead, they are a testament to the sturdy rapport of Washington’s ensemble, made up of Los Angeles musicians who have been playing together for years — in some cases, since high school.

The best way to experience the cleanse and burn of Kamasi Washington’s music is live; with just the core members of the group, his songs become airborne vehicles with plenty of room for you to climb inside. Soloists like Washington and the trombonist Ryan Porter do not have to fight for space. Still, his growing body of orchestral recordings is making big statements of its own, confronting an earthly reality that continues to grow darker with an earnest and open vision.