Struggle from Within (world premiere, LA Phil commission, with generous support from Lisa Field and the Field Family Foundation)
When Kamasi Washington released his tour de force LP, The Epic, in 2015, it instantly set him on a path as a torchbearer for progressive, improvisational music. The 172-minute odyssey featuring his 10-piece band, The Next Step, was littered with elements of hip-hop, classical, and R&B music, all major influences on the young saxophonist and bandleader, who exceeds any notions of what “jazz” music is. Released to critical acclaim, The Epic won numerous “best of” awards, including the inaugural American Music Prize and the Gilles Peterson Worldwide album of the year.
Washington followed that work with collaborations with other influential artists, such as Kendrick Lamar, John Legend, Run the Jewels, and Ibeyi, and the creation of “Harmony of Difference,” a standalone multimedia installation during the prestigious 2017 Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.
His mass appeal continued to grow, drawing vibrant, multi-ethnic, and multi-generational crowds with tour stops at the world’s most prominent festivals, such as Coachella, Glastonbury, Fuji Rock, Bonnaroo, and Primavera. His highly anticipated sophomore album, Heaven and Earth, was released in June 2018.
With the release of Heaven and Earth, Kamasi Washington has been struggling with, well, struggle, as he has indicated in several interviews. “I have two sides to myself,” he told Stereogum. “I have one that’s very much into the physical world, reading the newspaper, looking at the news, concerned about what’s going on in the world. Then I have the other side of myself that’s not concerned. I realized in making this album that that side of myself is actually really dictating the other side of myself. “Fists of Fury” [the opening track on Earth] to me is really about the internal nature of struggle and how we have power to overcome that struggle. It’s eternal. It never ends. It’s perpetual.”
Struggle from Within is a multi-sectional work of great contrasts. Passages of patterned figuration sit by sturdy chorales, big tunes by jittering chromaticism. Solos abound – including one that will be both cherished and feared by tuba players – in generally translucent textures, rich in unison and octave doublings. The struggles come to rest in an epic finale, clarified if not resolved, with an aspirational melody shared around the ensemble over two oscillating chords, like a cosmic amen. - John Henken