Heaven and Earth, the new gargantuan double album from acclaimed tenor saxophonist, Kamasi Washington is perplexing. It’s not as if the record isn’t a thoroughly enjoyable listen, but at the end of its two-and-a-half-hour run-time, there remain a few vitally important questions that, unfortunately, have particularly unsatisfying answers:
- What is the album trying to achieve?
- Does the music relate to the album’s concept?
- Is Washington justified in promoting the album, solely under his own name?
Sadly, in the media furore surrounding this record, those questions have largely been ignored, resulting in blind value judgements, based on very little in the way of musical discussion or genuine critical analysis. Rather than discussing the music within the context of the album and its relationship to its genre, many of the reviews of Heaven and Earth are overly preoccupied with Kamasi Washington’s role in bringing jazz to the mainstream, often only beginning to talk about the music in the review’s penultimate paragraph. It is Washington’s mainstream appeal (which is not an inherently bad thing) that has caused this. The hype around the new record has resulted in higher profile, pop writers covering music of which they don’t have sufficient understanding, meaning that they are much better equipped to cover the zeitgeist surrounding the record than the music itself. There have been a few notable exceptions that inspire some hope, but the coverage of Heaven and Earth has been largely disappointing.
With that in mind, this review is not going to be a Hot Take™ about the state of jazz; instead, it will be an evaluation of the album’s success in achieving its own goals and whether, regardless of that, it’s still worth sitting through the intimidating run-time.
To put it simply, the most damaging thing to Heaven and Earth’s enjoyability is the way it has been marketed. Firstly, those who have been following the marketing of the record have been beaten over the head with the idea that this is some transcendent, spiritual journey. There will certainly be some who do feel a sense of metaphysical connection with this Coltrane-esque brand of “spiritual jazz”, but the idea that the album is any more mystical than any other jazz of a remotely similar nature is a little ridiculous. The album’s lavish choral and string accompaniments are ethereal, but the lack of any significant musical, or aesthetic, development following his last two releases (The Epic and Harmony of Difference), prevents the record from eliciting any new or meaningful emotional responses. Particularly frustratingly, the vamp for ‘Show Us The Way’ is almost identical to that of ‘Change of the Guard’, the opening track of The Epic. The only moment on the album that felt genuinely new for Kamasi and Co. was the atonal, free jazz opening of ‘The Invincible Youth’, but rather than developing those ideas over the course of the tune’s 10 minutes, it merely returns to Washington’s typical style of West Coast vamp after a few measly seconds of insanity.
Secondly, the concept on which the marketing of this album was based is totally unidentifiable within the music. The first of the record’s two discs is meant to represent ‘Earth’, whilst the latter is supposed to convey the idea of ‘Heaven’ – a grand concept that relates to Washington’s personal spirituality. Disappointingly though, there is no substantive difference between the styles of music on the two discs other than an increased use of strings and vocals. Harmonically and melodically there’s almost no change at all – the music still consists of Coltrane-esque harmonies and unelaborate melodies. The second disc’s opener, ‘The Space Traveller’s Lullaby’, has the most individuality on the record, purely because it has quite an elaborate structure, finishing with a beautiful, echoing unaccompanied saxophone solo, only to be joined in the last few precious seconds by swelling strings and percussion. Otherwise, however, ‘Heaven’ follows much the same formula as ‘Earth’.
Thirdly, the fact that Heaven and Earth has been marketed solely as a Kamasi Washington album is thoroughly misleading in terms of the compositions and performances on the record. This project is not a highly composed opus, it’s a collection of gorgeous vamps with minimal melodic composition and lots of excellent solos and performances from Kamasi and his band. It’s actually fairly rare that Washington’s saxophone playing is the total centre of attention on any one track, and the other band members are brilliant improvisers to the point that any one of them could steal the show, given the opportunity. Honestly, Heaven and Earth would make a whole lot more sense as a project if it were marketed as an album by ‘Kamasi Washington and the Next Step’ or ‘Kamasi Washington and the West Coast Get Down’. It’s much more of a collaborative sound than the heavy-handed promotion would suggest, yet it’s way too difficult to find a personnel list for the record.
All that being said however, there is still much to be appreciated about Heaven and Earth. As previously mentioned, all of the performances from the musicians on the record are nuanced and enthusiastic. There’s not a moment across the record’s duration where the energy of the band lulls even a little bit, which makes the sheer size of the album a whole lot easier to digest than might be expected. It is unfortunate that the personnel list has been so devilishly hard to track down, but after some digging, it can be found here. Trombonist, Ryan Porter delivers a number of the most endearing solos on the record, with a particular highlight being his gloriously melodic stamp on ‘Street Fighter Mas’ (which, incidentally, is the tightest track on the record).
Additionally, some of the vamps do change and evolve as their respective tracks progress. I particularly love the quiet, unassuming percussion and piano breakdown at the end ‘Song for the Fallen’ and the way in which the autotuned vocals on ‘Vi Lua Vi Sol’ affect the vibe of the piece when they come in. Washington also pens his best vocal composition yet with ‘Journey’, which is heavily gospel influenced, the most pastoral track on the record, and features another gorgeous Ryan Porter trombone solo.
Honestly, this album just feels confused in its identity. It’s a thoroughly satisfying listen that never really drags, even though nobody would blame you for expecting it to. The problem is that it doesn’t deliver on its promise of a Washington centric, high concept odyssey, with its value coming from the performances of the various band members, none of whom are sufficiently credited in any of the promotional materials (or anywhere else remotely easily accessible to the average listener). One’s enjoyment of Heaven and Earth is ultimately dependent on expectation. If you go into it looking for a meaty chunk of light-hearted, elaborately presented, easy to listen to jazz, you won’t be disappointed – particularly if you enjoy Washington’s brand of faux spirituality. If you expect the level of conceptual depth as advertised by the record’s promotional materials however, then Heaven and Earth has the potential to be a major let down. This is an easy record to enjoy, but it doesn’t offer anything truly special or unique. It’s just a lot of fun.