Monday, July 09, 2018

Kamasi Washington, Onyx Collective

Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth (Young Turks/Beggars)

This jazz saxophonist from L.A. debuted in 2015 with a triple album that was as fantastic as it was audacious. Non-jazz audiences were intrigued because of Washington’s hip-hop résumé, including his extensive work on Kendrick Lamar’s landmark album To Pimp a Butterfly. But there was nothing hip-hop in his own work: this was straight-up modern jazz that owed debts to psychedelic funk and late-period John Coltrane. Not only was that debut a triple album, it was excessive in every way: two bassists (including Thundercat), two drummers, and a large band that was occasionally augmented by a 32-piece orchestra and a 20-person choir, not including featured vocalists. It was big. It was, naturally, called The Epic.

It was also daunting.

On his follow-up album, Washington retains everything that made The Epic a rare crossover success—including the choir and the orchestra—but offers instead a relatively trim eight tracks (almost all of which clock in around eight expansive minutes). Perhaps needless to say, the soloists are all exceptional, and all get their due. Despite the orchestrations and heavy rhythm section, the arrangements sound nimble and expressive rather than suffocating.

In case there was doubt, Heaven and Earth makes it obvious that Washington’s success was and is entirely independent from that of his peers and collaborators. And it certainly isn’t a fluke. (June 22)

Stream: “Fists of Fury,” “Can You Hear Him,” “The Invincible Youth”

Onyx Collective – Lower East Side Suite Part Three (Ninja Tune)

Walk around Manhattan in 2018 and it’s hard to imagine New York City as a jazz town. It’s not the gritty jazz jungle of Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane and John Zorn. It’s now nearly pristine, a Disneyland for hedge-fund managers. There is no room for improvisation or scuffed-up saxophones in modern-day Manhattan.

Or is there?

The core members of the Onyx Collective met at New York College and then took their sound to the streets, popping up randomly on corners, at parties, in a storefront, underground. Their debut album was pressed independently and was never made available online: you had to buy it from the members themselves at a show. (Imagine!)

Their debut for renowned electronic and jazz label Ninja Tune (which follows up two EPs with the same title) sounds like it was made with one room mic: if much of modern jazz recordings sound like they were mastered for your high-end hi-fi system, this is raw and alive. It sounds like you’re standing right in front of them on a subway platform, not in a studio with padded couches and acoustic baffling. Titles are geographically specific: “Battle of the Bowery,” “Delancey Dilemma,” “2AM at Veselka.”

Saxophonist Isaiah Barr says, “New York’s role in Onyx Collective is everything. The names of people, the places, the street corners here are so legendary and historically prominent—it leaves a roadmap that we can walk through, and a story for us to follow.”

Now, how a bunch of young jazz artists can afford to live in Manhattan these days is another issue altogether. Maybe that’s why two of their songs are titled “There Goes the Neighbourhood” and “Eviction Notice.” (June 22)

Stream: “Rumble in Chatham Square,” “Don’t Get Caught Under the Manhattan Bridge,” “Battle of the Bowery”

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