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Kamasi Washington stretches out to fresh territory on Fearless Movement

"Fearless Movement"

Release date: 03 May 2024
Kamasi Washington Fearless Movement cover
02 May 2024, 09:00 Written by Janne Oinonen

Only a decade or so ago jazz was predominantly a curatorial pursuit, dedicated to restoring, repackaging and reflecting on its past peaks.

But Los Angeles-based saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s appropriately titled 2015 debut The Epic played a major role in rebooting jazz as a vital contemporary creative force. Weighing in at a mammoth three hours of music, the album’s MO of channeling genre cornerstones such as John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders via an unabashedly maximalist, orchestrally opulent yet also spiritually and perhaps also psychedelically charged lens (consolidated on 2018’s equally huge Heaven and Earth, and perhaps perfected on 2017 EP Harmony of Difference) offered a refreshing vision of jazz as a vibrant music of the now, rather than a stuffy museum exhibition or a tame tool for revisiting past glories.

Such a distinctive signature sound does present some risks. Tapping into the same terrain repeatedly could very easily lead to diminishing returns via stale predictability, with ground inevitably ceded to other, fresher, more undeniably relevant jazz-orientated innovators, all of whom have undoubtedly benefited from Washington’s efforts to rip up the rulebook of what jazz is capable of doing and representing in the 21st century. As such, it’s probably unsurprising that Fearless Movement (comparatively speaking a mere sprint at only 90 minutes in duration) doesn’t adhere rigidly to its predecessors’ default settings: instead of the ethos of big-is-beautiful maximalism heavy on choirs and strings that bolstered big chunks of The Epic and Heaven and Earth, the emphasis here is on smaller ensembles, guest performers and, most of all, a more pronounced rhythmic vibrancy.

Washington grew up in LA at the peak of West Coast hip hop’s G-funk pomp, but up until now the saxophonist, composer and bandleader’s own music has only subtly hinted at the rawer pulse of hip hop and funk, despite Washington’s past collaborations with Flying Lotus, Snoop Dogg and most notably Kendrick Lamar (Washington features prominently on 2015’s landmark To Pimp A Butterfly). While Fearless Movement would hardly be mistaken for a hip hop or dance record, the first half of the album especially feels distinctly reluctant to stay in any one musical pen, with Thundercat-assisted “Asha The First” (apparently initiated by the first keyboard experiments of Washington’s young daughter, a blur of whom features on the album cover) showcasing the MC-ing of LA rappers Taj and Ras Austin. The distinctly un-jazzy “Get Lit”, meanwhile, brings in the (G) funk in the form of Parliament/Funkadelic legend George Clinton (backed by rapper D-Smoke). Other adventures outside rigid genre limits prove somewhat less persuasive: the slow-burn soul grooves of “Computer Love” (cover of an 80’s electro-funk classic by Zapp) and “Together” feel slightly underpowered and heavy-lidded next to soaring crescendos that power up more conventionally stately and widescreen compositions like the opener “Lesanu” and “Road to Self (KO)”.

It's ultimately perhaps telling that the most compelling departures from set templates are more naturally aligned with the territory of Washington’s past triumphs. A showcase for Andre 3000’s droning flute textures, “Dream State” drifts along beatifically in a disorientating heat haze before gliding into a skittery, earthy and seriously joyous groove that could derive equally well from the jazz, Afrobeat or Latin music. The powerfully charged “Lines In The Sand” draws from socially conscious spiritual jazz from the 1960s and 70s with deeply resonant results, with the graceful, gospel-hued vocal harmonies providing a perfectly juxtaposed companion for the escalating fierceness of Washington’s elegiac soloing. Perhaps best of all, the urgent, charged-up closer “Prologue” sounds pretty much as you’d expect from an epic Kamasi Washington workout, but the track feels more robustly rhythmic, vibrant, spontaneous and energized than the more sumptuously upholstered default settings of Washington’s past releases.

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