In 2015, saxophonist Kamasi Washington introduced himself to the world in a bold way: He released a triple album of jazz, long after the genre had ceased to be popular in the mainstream marketplace. Prior to The Epic—Washington’s massive debut, a blend of big band, gospel, and 1970s funk stretched over a whopping 174 minutes—he had appeared on lyricist Kendrick Lamar’s avant-rap opus To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), playing tenor saxophone on the song “u” and arranging strings throughout the LP. With its searing assessments of police brutality and racial injustice, Butterfly became one of the biggest records of recent years, catapulting Lamar and his collaborators—a collective that included Washington, pianist Robert Glasper, bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, and producer Terrace Martin—to even greater recognition. Washington’s music harks back to spiritual-jazz purveyors like Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, and John Coltrane, whose music sought peace for humankind and explored deeper states of consciousness. For Washington and his cohort, music has healing powers; the notes from their instruments are meant to summon the gods to whom they pray.
But before Washington became the trendiest musician in jazz, he and his friends toiled away in a tiny garage at his parents’ home in Inglewood, California, that they affectionately dubbed “the Shack.” There, Washington and the West Coast Get Down—an immensely talented collective featuring bassists Bruner and Miles Mosley, trombonist Ryan Porter, drummer Tony Austin, and pianist Cameron Graves—worked to create their own instrumental-music hybrid, fusing the big bounce of Los Angeles hip-hop with the silky improv of 1970s jazz-funk. Drawing on the likes of Dr. Dre, Weather Report, and Herbie Hancock, the crew crafted a sound that was equally steeped in past and present, thereby widening its appeal to a diverse range of listeners.
Perhaps taking advantage of his newfound spotlight, Washington dropped The Epic just two months after Butterfly’s release. He used his platform to promote love and acceptance during a spike in racial tensions in modern-day America. “There’s a deeper level of healing that needs to happen for the world in general,” Washington told The Washington Post at the time. “There’s a mass of people who are broken.” The Epic was a critical darling, lauded for its vast sonic ambition. In 2017, Washington released Harmony of Difference, a short follow-up EP that explored the idea of counterpoint, with versions of the same melody appearing in each of its songs. Even though Harmony offers all the large-scale resonance one would expect from Washington’s work, he also incorporated different sounds in the mix—Brazilian soul and bossa nova—setting the stage for his masterful new double LP.
Heaven and Earth, released on June 22, is every bit as exploratory, both musically and thematically, as Washington’s earlier work. Across 16 tracks and 146 minutes, its extended grooves make this double album nearly impossible to get through in one sitting. Indeed, it takes patience to absorb any of Washington’s releases, which, in this era of shorter albums and diminished attention spans, could be a tough ask for potential listeners. But Heaven and Earth is incredibly rewarding, full of gospel-centric arrangements that muster serenity in the midst of social and political strife. As with The Epic, this music feels shaded by the current climate, though the saxophonist resists being so didactic.