Thoughts On Kamasi Washington’s Heaven and Earth
Looking at any standard Jazz ensemble wherever you may view them, whether in a local show in a bar with a few haggards in the audience here and there, or in a blown-out orchestral setting with hundreds of spectators, chances are you’ll receive the same amount of force and concentration leveled in any of the performances. Being an instrument player means there isn’t much room for adding your own flexibility in a pattern that people can instinctually pick up as concordant and beautiful, or rigid and broken. Music listeners have learned this technique in the Swing era of the 1920’s, studied them in depth during the Bebop era of the 1950’s, writhed the pattern during the Acid Jazz phase of the 1970’s, and lost touch of their Jazz roots beyond the 1980’s. The permeating power of Hip Hop throughout the late twentieth century kept its spirit alive but silent behind the breakbeats, snare drums, and vocal poetry. Although Hip Hop is the successful result of the permeably-morphing Jazz evolution, the common listener didn’t look at the genre like that.
Hip Hop, such as Jazz, cultivated and harnessed the power of commercial listening once it reached its hands into nightclubs, radio exposure, television advertisements, and city events. These two genres flipped pop music in its head and revolved it again in a one-hundred eighty turn. With Hip Hop music now going through the experimental phases Jazz went through during the television era, it’s uncertain where it may lead in the next decades. Although with this in the mind of many erudite musicians, there’s always a possibility to converge every two genres together in pleasurable harmony and find its marketing power. Kamasi Washington is one of the maestros to do that for the common era, as his hands are gripping no less of a force, or his breath no less inhaling power and exhaling talent.
If talent wants to find its way to enthrone itself, it has to discover a way to reach the common platform and claim its knowledge and force over it. Kamasi Washington did exactly that by the time he was a student and developing saxophonist at UCLA, playing in the background for Snoop Dogg’s concerts during his grandfather years as a Hip Hop cultivator. As time passed and art evolved, Washington returned for the commercial bite once he helped arrange many of the devasting and exalting orchestral moments in Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. This was around the same time Washington was signed into Flying Lotus’ label, Brainfeeder, and introduced the full spectrum of his intelligence in 2015’s The Epic. Through the commercial success of The Epic, Washington found his way in the people’s ear with the ostentatious headlines and tours he’s been exhausting for the past years.
Heaven and Earth is the project to articulate the statement that he is still one of the most notable Jazz musicians of the modern era. When looking through the lens of technical arrangement, polished musical choreography, and the wave of leveling and rising orchestral moments, it’s hard to distinguish its significance compared to The Epic. I highly doubt this was the main intention or even concern for Washington. This album differs from his previous work through the emotions it evoked, the mindstate he displays, and the journey he and his ensemble guide you through. The Epic was a mind-boggling period piece of the hero’s journey, with the serene and harrowing moments all arranged to depict the story of every protagonist’s path. Heaven and Earth is the terraform of The Epic’s presented emotions and revitalized journey.
The first composition of the album, Fists of Fury, is an unexpected beginning that differs from the grandiose presentation of The Epic. Fists of Fury starts out savvy and calming, allowing the listener to soothe into the journey rather than prepare for its exhausting procedure. “I use hands to help my fellow man. I use hands to do what I just can,” expresses this sentience thought with the background theme of added trumpet and horns, monophonic leveling, the saxophonist’s signature display, and insatiable piano playing. Can You Hear Him is beautifully harmonic as any of Washington’s compositions but adds in an intense procedure from the display of a mind-whirling electric keyboardist nearly two minutes in.
A major motif of this album is the added distinction from one track to another, choreographed in a way where one instrument could influence the whole presentation of the combined instrumentation. Tiffankonkae is lead by Washington’s saxophone conjuration, but I couldn’t help but notice the prolific piano integration throughout the composition. The only composition from The Epic I could recall that remotely related to this feeling was Cherokee, although still differs in tonal significance. Street Fighter Mas is an oddly different presentation from Washington’s usual approach with a one-beat tempo from a low-tuned keyboard and drum play, aided by the vocal harmony of a chorus behind the saxophonist’s lead. All these orientations lead up to the bombastic and explosive dynamic work of most of the significant features of the album and accumulate to one full studied spectrum for the grand finale.
Heaven and Earth presents the grand scale that worked in The Epic but shifted its heart in another state of consciousness. The length just shies away from two or more hours, but crafts no fewer emotional distances to wander through and appreciate the work for its education. In The Epic, the hero traces his story through the pleasures and tribulations of his test. In Heaven and Earth, the hero has matured, and found himself in another story, through the other realms of spiritual resonance and meditative reflection. For Washington and perhaps his upcoming heirs of the genre, there are no limitations for the material world that spiritual artists could not reach. Heaven and Earth and his future projects will show just that.