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Kamasi Washington - Becoming (Music From the Netflix Original Documentary) Music Album Reviews

Soundtracking Netflix’s Michelle Obama documentary, the Los Angeles saxophonist trades the sprawl of his albums for a more concise approach, wrapping pop-friendly motifs in big arrangements.

That Los Angeles saxophonist Kamasi Washington was tapped to compose the music for Becoming, director Nadia Hallgren’s documentary-film companion to Michelle Obama’s 2018 memoir, feels almost like a given. While there is a vital, venerated, multi-generational jazz scene still thriving in Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama’s hometown of Chicago, Washington’s music epitomizes the Obama presidency’s once-in-a-generation vision, uplift, and sense of hope. Today, that period looks like a beacon of light in a time of incessant dolor. You might even feel a lump in the throat when the film shows 2008 footage of Michelle signing campaign materials as a brief reprise of Washington’s bittersweet 2015 song “The Rhythm Changes” plays in the background.

Becoming’s 15 tracks reveal a seldom heard side of Washington: concision. Barely topping a half-hour runtime, the record ends right where you would otherwise be deep into the third cut on The Epic or Heaven and Earth. Yet such brevity suits Washington here, letting him wrap pop-friendly motifs in big arrangements while also allowing him room to experiment with different approaches. In the film, it’s rare that Washington’s saxophone cuts through to the foreground. But as his records show, his charts and arrangements are every bit the equal of his horn, and the soundtrack allows him to fully embrace his inner Q. For all Heaven and Earth’s grand ambition, Washington tries on more styles and takes more risks across these cues.
With no room to sprawl, Kamasi cuts right to the melodic core. Sunday-service church organ blends beautifully with his breathy vibrato on “Southside V.1.” Atop subtle strings, he assumes a steamy Last Tango in Paris mode on “Take in the Story,” and slots in alongside the horns on the stepping AM soul of the title track. “Provocation,” which soundtracks a scene depicting the racist backlash that President Obama faced during his time in office, is full of fluttering reeds and suspenseful brass, and its contrapuntal movement makes it as dramatic a piece of music as Washington has recorded to date.

Some songs sound almost like snippets of Washington’s winding album tracks, cut into bite-sized chunks. “Connections,” “Detail,” and “Announcement” could easily be mistaken for excerpts from Heaven and Earth, yet they feel slightly anonymous in this context. As refreshing as it is to hear Washington working in a smaller scale, there are times you wish the compact form would give way to sustaining a mood. In “Fashion Then and Now,” just as the quivering strings, chiming piano, and warm woodwinds start to gather momentum, the piece abruptly stops.

The most gorgeous track here is “Song for Fraser.” It’s as slow and smoky as a Stan Getz ballad, and Washington’s tone is mellow and enveloping, touched with velvety vibrato. There’s a real ache when it draws down after just two minutes, but in the context of the film it’s even more heart-wrenching. It plays as Michelle Obama fondly recalls her late father, Fraser Robinson III, relaxing in his recliner, listening to his old jazz records. Washington’s score is the perfect evocation of those bygone golden eras—one long ago, and one still fresh in our memory.

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