Kamasi Washington’s music unexpectedly entered my life this year. Though I had heard his playing through his work on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, I never knew who played the frantically beautiful saxophone part in “Alright” until May of this year. While on a trip in New York, some friends and I had the opportunity to visit the Whitney Museum of American Art and see the museum’s Biennial exhibit. There, several of my friends and I found ourselves mesmerized by one piece in particular: Kamasi Washington’s Harmony of Difference. The piece focused on a surreal and beautiful short film to which Washington had composed a five movement jazz suite.
Each movement centers around one melodic theme. Following the introduction of each motif, Washington’s ensemble of virtuosos improvise solos and feed off of one another until the music swells to the point of bursting before winding down in order to seamlessly flow into the next movement. Each of the movements possesses its own unique character and feel. Washington and his band showcase their versatility through their ability to produce impressive and accessible jazz in a variety of different moods and styles. The final movement of the piece, “Truth,” reintroduces each of the motifs that the previous movements highlighted, eventually playing them all simultaneously. The result is a gorgeous exercise in counterpoint composition. Each of these themes, while compelling and pleasing in their own right, benefit from being played in harmony with the other themes. They converse with one another, and they highlight each others’ strongest phrases. Washington states that the piece seeks to celebrate the diversity of America through music and film. In a time when Americans are increasingly tempted to retreat within their tribes, it is a poignant reminder that we are capable of accomplishing far greater things together than the things we accomplish divided.
After leaving the Whitney, I found myself thirsty for more of Washington’s emotional brand of jazz. However, the only movement available from Difference to the public was a Youtube video of “Truth.” As a consolation, I listened to his 3-hour long 2016 release The Epic on repeat for months until Washington released the Harmony of Difference EP in September. With the release of the EP, I had the opportunity to gain a deeper familiarity with the music that first introduced me to Washington back in May. Since then, I have found that I prefer Difference’s shorter, more focused approach to musical storytelling over The Epic’s comprehensive tour de force. Washington manages to simplify his approach while retaining the level of virtuosity that has earned him his time in the limelight.
When I saw Kamasi Washington live this December, he imparted to the audience wisdom he learned from his grandmother. “It’s not about what you have– It’s about what you do,” Washington told us before launching into a powerful performance of “Henrietta, Our Hero” from The Epic. Seemingly, Washington has applied this familial proverb to the creation of Difference. Washington not only has an extraordinary gift, Washington does something meaningful with that gift on Difference in choosing to celebrate diversity through his music. On Difference, Washington says enough without having to say a single word.
Favorite Track: “Knowledge”
Time(s) of the year it could be commonly found in my headphones: November- December