For decades, a small subset of jazz musicians has mistakenly believed that chasing R&B and pop trends represents a path to commercial success. In reality, it’s rarely worked that way. For every hit like Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” or smooth jazz radio staple like Miles Davis’ “Time After Time,” there are literally hundreds of albums of slick, forgettable — and forgotten — wallpaper music. At the moment, keyboardist Robert Glasper, saxophonist Terrace Martin, and trumpeter Christian Scott, among others, are blending jazz with hip-hop and R&B, on their own and collectively as R+R=NOW. The music’s often very good — Scott’s 2017 trilogy of moody trap-jazz albums was stark and powerful — but actual chart hits are likely to evade their grasp.
But then there’s Kamasi Washington. Despite having come up working with Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar, the leonine saxophonist seems to have little interest in chasing the musical zeitgeist. Instead, he’s carving his own path, and critics and fans are meeting him on a ground of his choosing. His 2015 breakthrough release The Epic was a nearly three-hour three-CD set that sounded like something Pharoah Sanders or Alice Coltrane would have made in 1972, if Impulse! Records had given them the budget for an orchestra and a choir. Fully half its 17 tracks blasted past the 10-minute mark, and Washington’s solos bridged soul jazz and avant-garde roar, often seeming to try and encapsulate the whole post-Coltrane history of the saxophone in a single eruption. And somehow, a shockingly large number of people far outside the traditional jazz audience have found this music to be exactly what they want.
There’s precedent for this kind of crossover. At the height of the hippie era, saxophonist Charles Lloyd’s quartet, which featured Keith Jarrett on piano, played the Fillmore in San Francisco, and their album Forest Flower — the second of eight they’d release between 1966 and 1968 — went platinum. In the late 1990s, David S. Ware’s quartet, with Matthew Shipp on piano and William Parker on bass and a series of drummers, signed to Columbia and opened for Sonic Youth. (Their second and final release for the label, Surrendered, featured a version of Lloyd’s “Sweet Georgia Bright.”) Ware didn’t go platinum, but he did get reviewed in Rolling Stone. Neither Lloyd nor Ware played music that conceded anything to rock audiences, and yet they connected with the people who heard them, especially onstage. (Seven of Lloyd’s eight Sixties albums were recorded live.)
The first time I saw Kamasi Washington perform was a couple of months after The Epic came out, at the Blue Note, a prestigious NYC jazz club that holds about 150 people, tops. It was sold out, with a line down the block outside, and the crowd was unlike any I’d ever seen in a jazz club. They were young, in groups of four or five, and the conversations I overheard revealed that this was the first time many of them had been to a place like the Blue Note; they didn’t know if there was some special way you were supposed to act in a jazz club, and they worried they were doing it wrong. It seemed like some of them considered the experience “adulting.” But once the show started, social anxiety and genre classifications were swept away. The music was simply too good for labels to matter.
The next time Washington played New York, he headlined Webster Hall’s main room, which held 1500 people — more than the 10 most famous jazz clubs in the city put together. And in the three years since, he and his band have toured the US and Europe, playing theaters and festivals to crowds lots of pop and rock acts would envy. He’s been to Coachella and Bonnaroo. And last week, I saw him for the second time, at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, opening for Alt-J.
The sun was still out when the band took the stage — Washington, trombonist Ryan Porter, keyboardist Brandon Coleman, and vocalist/dancer Patrice Quinn up front, and bassist Miles Mosley and drummers Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner, Jr. in back. With only 40 minutes to play, they stacked the set with new and newish music, performing “Fists of Fury” and “Street Fighter Mas” from Heaven And Earth, and “Truth” from last year’s Harmony Of Difference EP. And the audience, which was again overwhelmingly young, at least down on the ground where I was, was into it. They were dancing, cheering, shouting, and occasionally singing along with Quinn’s often-wordless vocals.
The fact that Washington and crew hit hard certainly helps them get across to rock audiences. He wears a football player’s mouth guard to play, removing it to address the audience between tunes. Mosley uses pedals to crank his bass up to a skull-vibrating roar. Coleman solos like a cross between McCoy Tyner and Keith Emerson, switching between piano and synthesizer at a moment’s notice, and the double drummers are positively apocalyptic.
In the studio, though, Washington has always kept things more restrained. The Epic has moments of explosive power, but the drums are mixed much lower than they are onstage, the unison melodies he plays with trombonist Porter make their combined voices sound like a whale singing you a lullaby, and the strings and choir — which mostly delivers “ah-ah” melodies like you hear in the opening credits to Star Trek — give the long, vamping tunes a lushness that makes you want to relax into your couch. The follow-up, last year’s six-track Harmony Of Difference, ran a mere 36 minutes, and only featured the strings and choir on its final track. For most of its running time, it was straight-ahead ’70s jazz like that played by Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins, or even Stanley Turrentine; it could have been released on Milestone or CTI.
Heaven And Earth (note that the first disc is actually “Earth” and the second “Heaven”) presents a more grounded and even autobiographical version of Kamasi Washington than we got on The Epic. Through track titles and his choice of covers, he’s allowing us a few glimpses into his childhood and upbringing. The album opens with “Fists Of Fury,” a radically expanded version of the theme from a 1972 Bruce Lee movie; the stabbing strings and surging Afrobeat/Blaxploitation beat sound like one of Adrian Younge’s productions for Ghostface Killah. “Street Fighter Mas” is Washington’s imagined soundtrack to playing arcade games as a kid, with oozing funk bass from Miles Mosley and snapping guest drums from Snarky Puppy’s Robert “Sput” Searight.
“Vi Lua Vi Sol” features a Vocodered vocal from keyboardist Brandon Coleman, shadowed by trombonist Ryan Porter and periodically dive-bombed by swooping prog synths. “The Psalmist” is one of only three tunes Washington didn’t write; it’s by, and showcases, Porter, who gives himself a strutting parade rhythm courtesy of drummers Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner, Jr. and bassist Mosley. The three-piece horn section — Washington, Porter, and trumpeter Dontae Winslow — kick things off with a rousing hard bop head, setting up fierce, sprawling solos by the trombonist and saxophonist. Winslow gets his own spotlight turn on a version of Freddie Hubbard’s “Hub-Tones,” which combines pointillistic piano from Cameron Graves with fast Latin percussion; his solo displays a rich, full tone and a thorough command of the horn, bringing to mind not only Hubbard but Woody Shaw as well. “Testify” is a showcase for Quinn’s breathy vocals, and the music is as slick as classic Philly soul.
One of Heaven And Earth’s biggest surprises is “The Invincible Youth,” which begins with an eruption from all three horns over thunderous drums and clanging piano; it’s as close as this band has ever come to free jazz. It’s just a fanfare, though. After a minute, the music restarts, sliding into a loping jazz-funk groove, over an almost go-go beat, and when the saxophone solo starts, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re listening to Grover Washington, Jr. rather than Kamasi Washington. (That’s not a bad thing, by the way: Grover Washington, Jr.’s early ’70s Kudu albums are great.)
Despite all the time between The Epic (which was recorded in 2011, remember, and sat on the shelf for several years) and Heaven And Earth, which was recorded last year, Washington’s voice as a composer and arranger remains remarkably consistent. Yes, he’s tightened up a little: While eight of the 17 tracks on The Epic stretched beyond the 10-minute mark, only four pieces on Heaven And Earth do, and the longest, the 12:42 “Song For The Fallen,” is still two full minutes shorter than The Epic’s massive “The Next Step” (14:49). Still, his pieces are generally built around melodic vamps that sound like a giant tree waving its limbs in the air, and Heaven And Earth remains a lot to take in. It might be a double CD rather than a triple, but it’s less than half an hour shorter than The Epic.
When you’re trying to grapple with this much music, it can start to blur together. You might start to wish Washington had put out Heaven by itself, then released Earth six to nine months later, like how Christian Scott initially split his trilogy into single discs, only bundling them at the end. But then you focus again, and you realize that you can’t possibly pick even one of these 16 tracks to put on the shelf until later. This thing is monumental, but that’s the point. Take the whole ride.