Born to musical parents, and an alumnus of UCLA’s Department of Ethnomusicology, Kamasi Washington is a saxophonist, composer, producer, bandleader, and wizard. His latest album, Heaven And Earth, is a double-LP, which follows up from his first record on Young Turks in 2017, Harmony Of Difference. It’s his first full-length since releasing The Epic in 2015 on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder record label. Back in April of this year, Kamasi Washington explained the concept behind Heaven And Earth, tweeting, “The Earth side represents the world as I see it outwardly, the world that I am a part of. The Heaven side represents the world as I see it inwardly, the world that is a part of me.”
So let’s start with Earth. The album immediately lands a right jab straight to the dome with “Fist of Fury,” a Malcom X-ian call to arms featuring Patrice Quinn and Dwight Trible chanting “We will no longer ask for justice/Instead, we will take our retribution.” The track is one of three not composed by Washington, out of the sixteen total tracks on Heaven And Earth. It was also released as a single in April, along with Heaven’s opening track, “The Space Travelers Lullaby.” Earth uses mostly conventional styles of jazz, thus creating a sound that’s more mundane and earthly – though not in any way lacking in turbulence or excitement; the album is undeniably jam-packed with drama.
Moving on to the celestial meat and potatoes. Heaven’s grandiose orchestral jazzscapes are like the soundtrack to a trailer of a futuristic utopia, where the air is clean and electric cars fly between mile-high vertical farms. This glorious sound achieved by Kamasi Washington does invaluable justice to the modest (and dare I say starving) world of contemporary jazz. Heaven’s angelic atmosphere is largely owed to the string section employed where it was not found on Earth. This, along with more modern and cosmic synth textures besprinkled here and there, escorts us into Washington’s sonic inner sanctum.
I also found that Heaven has much gentler tones and chord progressions, whereas Earth is more violent, perhaps suggesting that Kamasi Washington has much more inner peace than he sees in the chaotic world around him. His inner peace is especially evident in Patrice Quinn’s lyrics in Heaven’s “Journey,” “Life and love and peace in my heart/Hallelujah, joy spring/And every day a brand new start/Hallelujah, joy spring.” At this point I am obligated to point out that the political tone of “Fist of Fury” may not be one Washington resonates with. This is just my conjecture based off of his tweet, but it’s worth thinking about, since this is a concept album composed of two polarized halves. Every full listen has yielded me a greater appreciation for the skillfully crafted distinctions between the two. This beautiful LP is all at once political turmoil and celebration of life. — KYLE WEINSTEIN