Show Us the Way: Kamasi Washington’s psalm of ascent

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Some songwriters are celebrated for saying a lot with a little. Kamasi Washington’s whole thing is saying a lot with a lot. The saxophonist/composer’s first album as a leader was The Epic, which he followed with the ideologically robust The Harmony of Difference EP, heftier than many full-fledged long-players. His new Heaven and Earth wears grandiosity in its title, and contains multitudes within its luxurious spread. Its two generous portions tower, its songs sprawl, and everything is writ large: This is an album about generational struggle, about narratives of oppression, resilience, and jubilee that are as old as time, as fresh as this morning’s headlines, told in the vernaculars of those who’ve gone before us.

Like The Epic, Heaven and Earth is loaded up with choirs and strings, rambunctious solos weaving in and out of the large-group ruckus. It’s an album built for bulk, designed to dazzle. And it does dazzle, even if it occasionally fatigues. Somehow, though, self-editing feels antithetical to Washington’s true gifts; indeed, if Duke Ellington was the premiere jazz miniaturist, Washington is one of its most proficient maximalists, and he generally makes smart use of his large canvases. He can create and sustain tension, as he does on an updated Bruce Lee theme, “Fists of Fury,” which packs one explosive blast after another into its tightly-coiled 10 minutes. He also knows how to give form and shape to symphonic drift; “The Space Traveler’s Lullaby” speaks itself into being through one unfurled wash of melody after another, cosmic ambiance that feels like an alternate soundtrack to Malick’s Tree of Life.

The album’s wide enough to host legions of touchstones, and it’s awash in shared history and cultural memory. Washington draws on the sounds and signifiers of the Civil Rights era and jazz’s deepest immersions in Afrocentrism. It recalls Curtis Mayfield’s elegant fight songs and Alice Coltrane’s cosmic excursions; Marvin Gaye’s seductive opulence and Max Roach’s protest suites. “Fists of Fury” uses congas, strings, and wind chimes to affect a breezy groove in the Curtis vein, even as its kung fu rhythms land one sucker punch after another. “Vi Lua Vi Sol” soars with an autotuned vocal hook that recalls the earnest supplications of Stevie Wonder. “Street Fighter Mas” is roiling G-funk, and the entire record throbs with the speaker-rattling pulse of electric bass, much of supplied by Thundercat. Of course, Washington’s allegiance to jazz lore is unshaken: He once again finds creative ways to bring standards into his program, here turning Freddie Hubbard’s rickety “Hub-Tones” into immersive, full-throated soul-jazz.

These are artifacts, but they’re also signposts along Heaven and Earth’s long and winding road—its journey from injustice to supplication, from oppression to enlightenment; a journey that takes us from the mean streets to the throne of God, then drops us back on Earth where there’s still work to be done, and where making righteous fists of fury can be a prayer language unto itself. These are big themes to match the record’s big sound– nothing less than the intersection between shared struggle, personal religiosity, and collective activism. The Earth disc is a psalm of lament. It rages against inequity, and even opens on an imprecatory note, vocalists Patrice Quinn and Dwight Trible vowing to turn open palms into implements of wrathful justice. The songs that follow are concerned with working out conflict, largely through instrumental numbers: “Can You Hear Him” builds from its punchy groove and call-and-response horns into an uncharacteristically combative synth solo, while “The Invincible Youth” opens with a horn section knotted up with tension and discord. These are songs that search and struggle; they wrestle the angels and kick against demons.

Heaven, then, is the psalm of ascent—an interstellar pilgrimage to an entirely different astral plane. “The Space Traveler’s Lullaby” pans out for perspective, peace, and bliss; later, “Journey” brings gospel into the picture with a moanin’ church organ. “The Psalmist” implores through its Love Supreme peals, and “Show Us the Way” and “Will You Sing” end the album with some of Washington’s most exultant playing. Washington lets his imagination run wild in these tunes, but it always runs through the prism of our collective history. Heaven and Earth’s rootedness reminds us that struggle endures, from generation to generation—but so, too, does our capacity  to address it with resilient hope and joyful noise-making.

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