Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth

Kamasi
Title: Heaven and Earth

Artist: Kamasi Washington

Label: Young Turks

Release Date: June 22, 2018

Formats: CD, LP, Digital

 

While technically his third release as a leader, Kamasi Washington’s newest record, Heaven and Earth, is the second in an extra-long play format. The double album, like 2015’s The Epic, stretches well over 2 ½ hours across two CDs (the LP version is 4 discs with an additional hidden inside the centerfold, giving listeners a compelling version to purchase this one on vinyl). While Washington certainly has much to say, this album doesn’t feel long-winded. His excellent band keeps things interesting for the entire 2 hours and 24 minutes of Heaven and Earth’s sonic exploration.

Washington is a marvelous player, but his talents of composition and orchestration are what lie at the heart of this album—the music is orchestral, improvisational, and undeniably hip all at once.  It’s no wonder that he and the crew of musicians he regularly works with, including his crack rhythm section of the Bruner brothers (bassist Stephen AKA “Thundercat” and drummer Ronald Jr.), are first-call musicians for sessions and production work.

It is possible to say that Washington has grown as a composer while also acknowledging that his previous full-length was released by a fully-formed artist. While The Epic spanned much musical territory, Heaven and Earth demonstrates skillful use of musical contrast within tracks as well as on a tune-to-tune basis. Washington’s music works on many levels—for instance, the album’s foreshadowing opener, “Fists of Fury,” is about righteous indignation. The track’s vintage orchestral sound would easily be at home in the title sequence of a neo-western or kung fu movie, but also features a blazing doubletime piano solo incorporating very hip jazz harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary.

 

“The Invincible Youth” begins with a roiling Ornette Coleman-esque introduction and then evolves into a synth-jazz odyssey, while “Testify” is a poetic slow jam that would not be out of place on a ‘70s Stevie Wonder album. “Street Fighter Mas” is a funky tune on which Washington really stretches out on his sax; “Journey,” on the other hand, is a sparsely arranged jazz hymn.  “The Space Traveler’s Lullaby” perhaps best captures Washington’s maximalism—it’s a fully fleshed-out orchestral work that stretches to 10 minutes in a swirling collection of textures, colors, and harmonies that might make orchestral and cinematic composers jealous.

Even though Heaven and Earth pushes 3 hours, it’s not dull for a single second. The album’s gargantuan musical scope allows it to earn its title, as Washington takes his listeners through its many twists and turns with an unparalleled sense of taste. Certainly worth the celestial journey,  this epic album that features a great deal of greatly complex music.  Like a good book, Heaven and Earth can’t be digested in one sitting, but it is good enough to explore again and again.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Thundercat – Drunk

Thundercat
Title: Drunk

Artist: Thundercat

Label: Brainfeeder

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: February 24, 2017

 

This month sees a new release from the eclectic bass virtuoso Stephen Bruner, known by his stage name, Thundercat.  Bruner has performed with artists across a variety of genres, and is perhaps best known for his collaboration with rapper Kendrick Lamar on the latter’s 2015 masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly.  Thundercat has an ear for a variety of musical styles, and his wide-ranging musical approach is readily apparent on Drunk.

This 23-track album feels like a series of musical vignettes—only one of these cracks the 4-minute mark and the vast majority of them are shorter than 3 minutes long. However, this brevity allows each composition to be a highly detailed miniature, with carefully layered sounds and carefully composed tunes being the album’s highlight.  Each track leaves the listener craving more without feeling complete, almost as though each song were a brief study in compositional technique.  If Thundercat’s resume is full of versatility, so is his dossier of compositions.  This album is heavy on guest appearances, with Thundercat working with everyone from yacht-rockers Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins (“Show You the Way”), to socially-conscious rapper Kendrick Lamar (“Walk on By,” which can be heard below), to massive pop star and musical chameleon Pharrell Williams (“The Turn Down”).  On these “feat” tracks, Thundercat and company craft arrangements that bring out the best of his collaborators’ musical ideas while simultaneously pushing these otherwise well-established artists towards Thundercat’s own neo-soul jazz fusion.

The material on this album ranges from virtuosic (“Uh Uh”) to just plain weird, incorporating sung meows (“A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II)”) and lyrics about playing Mortal Kombat when relegated to friend status by a potential romantic partner (“Friend Zone”) into his musically and technically sophisticated music.  This approach begs comparison to the bizarre combination of humor and virtuosity that was the hallmark of artists like Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. While it is easy to imagine that listeners who are here for the marquee collaborations may be put off by the more technically involved or thematically strange music, these equal parts of Thundercat’s approach to composing and playing fit comfortably side-by-side.  This is the kind of record that will challenge listeners by pushing them out of their musical comfort zones by an artist who is comfortable across a wide variety of musical idioms.

Drunk is nothing if not ambitious, but ambitious records are usually a bit uneven.  It is hard to find a single unifying thread that runs throughout the album, but that ultimately doesn’t prove detrimental to the project as a whole. Drunk isn’t a novel, but a visit to a musical theme park, where listeners are encouraged to take a spin on each of the rides.

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Cameron Graves – Planetary Prince

Cameron-Graves-Planetary-Prince

Title: Planetary Prince

Artist: Cameron Graves

Label: Sterling Silver Productions

Format: CD

Release date: June 10, 2016

 

 

Perhaps best known for their participation on Kamasi Washington’s monumental LP The Epic (released in May 2015), the West Coast Get Down collective of jazz musicians returns on pianist Cameron Graves’s latest project, Planetary Prince. Led by Graves and featuring Washington, Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, trombonist Ryan Porter, drummer Ronald Bruner Jr, and non-West Coast Get Down musicians trumpeter Philip Dizack and bassist Hadrien Feraud, Planetary Prince makes a strong argument for West Coast players being on the cutting edge of progressive jazz.

Recorded in a marathon 11-hour session (with a second volume coming later this year), the compositions on Planetary Prince feel like jazz odysseys in miniature. The record’s shortest cut clocks in at 8 minutes, while the three remaining tracks are each longer than 10—not the length of most of Bitches Brew, but not small potatoes either.  These tracks give the musicians plenty of time to stretch out, exploring the cosmic themes implicit in the album’s title, with tunes derived from The Urantia book, a volume of esoteric religious philosophy.

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Graves and company are obviously well-versed in a number of musical styles, from the modern Coltrane-influenced jazz that permeates this record, to fusion (Graves’s other gig is with the pioneering bassist Stanley Clarke’s band), to classical music (he’s done soundtrack work too), to hip hop (as evidenced by Washington and Thundercat’s work with Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg), to heavy metal (including Graves’s participation in Jada Pinkett Smith’s nu-metal band Wicked Wisdom).  While it is difficult to see how each of these influences come to bear on this record at any individual moment, it is possible to hear the group’s fearless virtuosity as a consequence of being so well-versed—if you’re good at everything, it’s hard to find anything off limits.

The titular first track features a tight drum groove punctuated by Bruner’s in-the-pocket fills underneath Graves’s blistering piano solo, with the band momentarily becoming a tight jazz-rock trio before Washington enters with a solo that evolves from sparse to space-filling, playing with time like other players might play with changes.  “Andromeda” manipulates musical atmospheres—combining minimal accompaniment with soaring melodies, the tune derives much of its interest from its shifting textures and flowing melodies. “Isle of Love,” propelled by a lilting piano ostinato over which the band’s improvised and composed melodies swirl, indicates Graves’s prowess as a composer/arranger, and “Adam & Eve” is downright cinematic, growing from concert piano flourishes to double (sometimes triple) timed bebop lines over a half-time groove worthy of the heaviest metal.

Overall, Planetary Prince is a strong release by a leader and supporting cast of players who are pushing jazz into a thoroughly modern, inescapably hip direction.  This group’s blend of cosmic themes, hip compositions, monster playing, and intricate textures makes for what will assuredly be some of the year’s best jazz.

 

 

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

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