Kamasi Washington - Harmony of Difference

by Ljubinko Zivkovic Rating:10 Release Date:2017-09-29

Back in 2015 when Kamasi Washington began his meteoric rise on the jazz scene after his epic triple debut album The Epic appeared, I had the opportunity to see him live at the ever-developing “Le Guess Who?” festival in Utrecht, The Netherlands. Before the show, as is usually the case, all the participants had their wares sold by either their roadies or local record stores. Kamasi had a stall by himself, manned by a very amiable and pleasant gentleman of obviously a few years behind his back. It turned out to be Kamasi’s father, who was excited about the show with true sincerity. The moment Kamasi and his band went on stage, you could immediately sense that feeling of excitement for the music played, and there was no chance anything could go wrong. It didn’t. Somewhere during the show, Kamasi, with warm words, introduced a ‘guest flute player’. His father, who manned his ware stall an hour ago, came on stage and showed where Kamasi Washington got his sense and feel for the music.

Two years on, after continued success, Kamasi Washington is back with Harmony of Difference, loosely called an EP, since, at almost 32 minutes, the music could just as easily be deemed an LP. Lest we forget, this is the guy who debuted with a triple album. These days, however, I suspect it will not be his father manning the stalls (he should definitely be in his band, though) because Harmony of Difference is going to build on Kamasi’s reputation. 

The six-song suite was conceived as a part of the multi-media Whitney Museum of American Art 2017 Biennial, along with a film by A.G. Rojas, and artwork by Kamasis’ sister Amani Washington. As a clear carrier of the spiritual jazz tradition, Kamasi conceived the suite, as he says, to explore “the philosophical possibilities of the musical technique known as ‘counterpoint,’ as the art of balancing similarity and difference to create harmony between separate melodies." The concept of the exhibition was a coordinated work coupling his sister's artwork and Rojas' film, one that deals with the harmony found in people from South Central and East Los Angeles, highlighting the beauty in their differences.

Sounds like a lofty concept, but Washington was obviously inspired, transferring the theme successfully into the music he presented on Harmony of Difference. Each of the first five tracks (named after a philosophical concept) develops a theme that is unified in the concluding track “The Truth.” Differing to The Epic which no matter how good it was, is a bit hard to digest in one continuous listen at a time, Harmony of Difference is a very cohesive, both conceptually and musically. As expected, the playing is exceptional, and while Washington has the main solo parts, at no point does he stifle other players, allowing all the soloists, along with the band itself, as well as the strings and choir which also appear, to also shine.

The music itself covers a range of styles, tied together with a spiritual, jazz theme. From the Lonnie "Liston" Smith spacey introduction of “Desire,” through the big band variations akin to Sun Ra of “Humility,” and Cannonball Adderley variations of “Knowledge," to Bossa and other Latin variations. Through it all, Kamasi does his best cross between later phase John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders of “Perspective” and “Integrity.” Combining all these elements and adding a string section and a choir for the concluding “Truth,” Washington comes up with his best piece of music so far. Something to do with that feel and excitement, I guess.

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