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Modern jazz’s majestic new star moves heaven and earth

On his new album, Kamasi Washington further affirms that he can reach deep into the rich legacy of the genre and yet also inject his music with his own creative imagination

Kamasi Washington performing in London in May. Photo: Getty Images
Kamasi Washington performing in London in May. Photo: Getty Images

When the Bruce Lee-starrer Fist Of Fury released in theatres in India in the early 1970s, it was A-rated, and we were clearly underage for it. That didn’t stop us. Four of us, barely teenagers, tried. We put on serious faces, trousers instead of shorts, bought tickets, and, with fingers crossed, showed up at the door. Miraculously, it worked. Well, it nearly did. Three of us were ushered in but the fourth—he had been a bit too creative and used a black ballpoint pen to get an unconvincing moustache—wasn’t. It was hot and humid in Kolkata and the ink from the pen had dribbled down and made a mess on his lips, chin and cheeks. We didn’t look back as he was turned away. Fist Of Fury, set in early 1900s’ Shanghai, was about Bruce Lee avenging the killing of his martial arts teacher and its self-titled theme song was all about that: I use hands to hold my fellow man/ I use hands to help with what I can/ But when I face an unjust injury/ Then I’ll change my hand into fist of fury.

Nearly half a century after that deliciously violent (Lee’s amazing martial arts skills; the appearance of a lethal nunchaku; and blood-curdling shrieks) film, saxophonist Kamasi Washington, American jazz’s most exciting contemporary exponent, has taken that Joseph Koo and James Wong song and reinterpreted it as a nearly 10-minute jazz composition. In the version by Washington, the song becomes a fight for black dignity, and a forceful comment on the political and social environment of the moment. The song—the first track on Washington’s masterful new album, Heaven And Earth—is renamed Fists Of Fury and the lyrics sung by the duet of Patrice Quinn and Dwight Trible are appropriately tweaked, chiefly with the addition of a refrain: Our time as victims is over/ We will no longer ask for justice/ Instead we will take our retribution.

Washington burst upon the jazz scene in 2015, when he released The Epic, his grand album of nearly 3 hours, and achieved instant stardom in a manner that is rare in the genre. That happened because although Washington’s recent albums—The Epic as well as the new one—are of deeply immersive jazz, with a huge and sweeping soundscape, he has been able to find a following not just among jazz aficionados but also among those who you would not normally expect to listen to jazz: rock music fans; hip hop fans; and R&B enthusiasts. Not for nothing has he been called the saviour of the genre. This April, he played at Coachella, the festival in the middle of a desert in California, where the line-up included stars such as Beyoncé, SZA, David Byrne, St Vincent, HAIM, and dozens of others. If you watch his two gigs there (there was a live webcast that can be streamed even now), you would see and hear him playing larger-than-life-sized jazz. His band was huge, with horns, strings, an orchestra, and vocalists. The sets were uncompromisingly pure jazz but they left his audience enthralled.

Washington’s route to stardom has been unusual. And though The Epic brought him quick recognition as a jazz musician, the journey has been long. A Los Angeles native, formally schooled in music, the 37-year-old has been a sideman for many years; he has self-released a couple of albums; cross-hopped genres to tour with rappers such as Snoop Dogg; and most famously, recorded with Kendrick Lamar on the rapper’s To Pimp A Butterfly album. Washington also appears on Lamar’s 2017 album, Damn, which won a Pulitzer award this year.

In a recent interview with Fader magazine, Washington describes his new album, Heaven And Earth, as “a journey between two simultaneous ways of looking at reality that affect each other: experience and imagination; a life your body lives and a life your mind lives". He adds that while recording the album, he realized that there were two sides to his music—songs that came from what he experienced in real life and others that came from his imagination. The first set, which begins with Fists Of Fury, is the album’s “earth" side. Washington and his band, which includes two bassists, two drummers, a pianist, a trombonist, an entire jazz orchestra, and vocalists, create a sound that draws on high-energy Latin jazz grooves, upbeat funk, and old school bebop. The tracks on this side are all over 8 minutes long, with solos, from Washington himself and also trombonist Ryan Porter, which range from being anxiously speedy to languorously slow-pace.

Besides his groovy take on the original Fist Of Fury, Washington interprets Hub-Tones, a well-known composition from the early 1960s by the late jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, into which he injects furious speed and urgency. It’s a standout tune on the first side of Heaven And Earth, and easily any jazz lover’s delight. The second, or “heaven", side of the album opens with The Space Travelers Lullaby, a more spiritual exploration that those who have listened to his breakthrough album, The Epic, will find familiar: gradually surging symphonic arrangements; wordless choral chants; and a wide soundscape of music that appears to gradually envelop you like a wave. That characteristic continues through the tracks on this side, many of which are much longer than those on the “earth" side, although at 2 hours and 25 minutes, the new album is shorter than The Epic.

With Heaven And Earth, Washington once again affirms his position among the vanguard of modern jazz, and as someone who reaches deep into the rich legacy of the genre and yet also injects his music with his own creative imagination, which he quite evidently has an abundance of. He also has the rare ability to turn those who are indifferent to the genre into jazz-lovers


The Lounge List

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘Fists Of Fury’ by Kamasi Washington from ‘Heaven And Earth’

2. ‘Hub-Tones’ by Kamasi Washington from ‘Heaven And Earth’

3. ‘Lust’ by Kendrick Lamar (featuring Kamasi Washington) from ‘Damn’

4. ‘Cold Dead’ by Flying Lotus (featuring Kamasi Washington) from ‘You’re Dead!’

5. ‘Think Of You’ by Terrace Martin (featuring Kamasi Washington) from ‘Velvet Portraits’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

He tweets at @sanjoynarayan

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