Kamasi Washington- Heaven and Earth
"Fists of Fury", the main theme to the 1972 Bruce Lee movie of the same name, is not a good song. The song, as well as the rest of that movie's soundtrack, is sung by a man named Mike Remedios, and while he has a nice enough voice, he doesn't quite have the gravitas to sell the lyrics, thus turning the song into a lump of cheese. This alone wouldn't make the song bad, but for some inexplicable reason the song's creator(s) decided to place random martial arts fighting sounds (lots of "hi-yah!"s and "kung pow"s) throughout the entire duration of the track, thus rendering it unlistenable. The whole thing lasts a little over three minutes, and when it ends you're thankful.
So it's nothing short of incredible that Kamasi Washington was able to take this forgotten piece of music from four decades ago and re-work it into something that commands your attention. What Washington has done here, on the opening track to his latest album, Heaven and Earth, is take the main theme to Fists of Fury, strip it down to its bare essentials, and then build it back up, and keep building and building and building until what he's left with is a nine and a half minute long jazz-funk odyssey. On his version of "Fists of Fury", Washington does something that all great covers do, he distills the raw essence of someone else's song and makes it his own. And whereas the original song was cheese whiz, Washington and his singers do have the proper gravitas to sell the lyrics, turning the simple ode to a martial arts master into a paean for the oppressed.
But "Fists of Fury" is not just an excellent song, it's an example of the evolution of Kamasi Washington as an artist. Washington has been making jazz music for roughly a decade and a half now, but it wasn't until 2015 that he really broke into the public consciousness, with his studio album The Epic. The album is aptly named, a three hour long effort with about half of the songs exceeding the ten minute mark, and complete with all the spiritual jazz trademarks, wailing saxophones and swelling choirs galore. It's an amazing album, but not exactly a digestible one, and one of the album's main flaws is that, after an hour or two things really start to blur together. That problem is (mostly) avoided on Washington's latest album, the two and a half hour long Heaven and Earth, which features rather subtle, yet still noticeable, changes in his sound. The wailing saxophones and swelling choirs are still there, as are the lengthy songs, but here Washington is more than willing to dip his toes into something a little new.
I've already mentioned the nods to funk on "Fists of Fury", which are also found on the single "Street Fighter Mas", but there's also the free jazz approximation of "The Invincible Youth", the vocoder-laden "Vi Lua Vi Sol", the more pop-oriented "Testify" (also the album's shortest song, which means it's still just a little shy of the six minute mark), and the string-filled "The Space Travelers Lullaby", which manages the incredible feat of sounding exactly like what the title suggests. And although the album is 144 minutes long, it feels so much more compact than The Epic, so much more digestible, despite the fact that The Epic is only half an hour longer than Heaven and Earth.
The are still points, particularly in the last third of the album, where it does feel like Washington is covering ground he has already covered, on both this album and his last. But in spite of this, Heaven and Earth is still nothing less than a fantastic release by a defining artist of this decade. And even when he does repeat himself, he's sure to make it sound just as beautiful as before.