Although jazz has never lost its creativity and vigour, it may wrongly have the reputation of being rather stuffy museum music with little new to offer today. So when saxophonist Kamasi Washington emerged to the scene with his 2015 album The Epic, he was hailed as an almost messianic jazz innovator. The wide-spread attention was in part due to his hiphop associations and his image as, if not a jazz messiah, at least a hip musician remarkably in touch with the times. Still, the fanfare was a welcome one as The Epic truly was a significant album, and with his latest EP, Harmony of Difference, Washington again proves that he is a major creative force.
The new release is a somewhat different affair from the previous one. Whereas The Epic ranged for almost three hours, Harmony of Difference is only half an hour long. The EP also has a clear aim behind it which gives it a certain tightness and thematic unity, perhaps lacking from the predecessor. As announced by the title of the EP, Washington’s aim is to explore the possibilities of counterpoint, the art of playing separate melodies off of each other to create a complex harmonic whole. To hear how Washington approaches this, the listener will have to wait until the final song, Truth, in which the themes of the previous five songs are combined to form a beautiful, life-affirming finale.
The first five songs and the themes themselves are notably simple. Desire starts the album off with a very pleasant contrast between tight, funky drumming - silky melodies and chords are played by horns and keyboards. You can feel yourself flown off to the realm of the ethereal, relaxation and bliss. Humility kicks up the tempo with fast, energetic playing, a kind of bebop theme and a hard-hitting drive. There is a sense of almost manic frenzy, yet the band always sounds well in control and the solos are particularly inventive. With Knowledge, the album returns to its celestial spheres. Washington here sets his gift for simple themes against a backdrop of intriguing rhythms alongside a gorgeous keyboard and piano.
The album grooves throughout and often makes you want to dance. In particular, Perspective and Integrity are the songs to wiggle your hips to and maybe to dance around the kitchen while cooking your favourite dish (I can tell you from experience this will impart special flavour to the food). After an extensive, spacey intro, Perspective gets the party popping with a festive atmosphere. A great solo by Washington culminates into a kind of freak-out moment, which is a bit short and thus leaves you craving more. Though maybe less memorable than the other songs, Integrity features some sexy Latin rhythms and nicely leads towards the true conclusive masterpiece.
Truth then is where it all comes together magnificently. The song boasts extensive instrumentation with an added choir, strings, flute, guitar and vibraphone. It builds up slowly, introducing the themes one by one and creating a spiritual mood. The choir in particular is employed to sublime effect. The music has an almost healing quality to it, clearly inspired by the likes of Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra and the Coltranes (Alice and John). The song also features Washington’s most inspired solo played with breathless excitement. It quietens down just to end with one more crescendo and a real compositional tour-de-force by Washington. In the end there is so much going on, there are so many layers and so many melodies that each listen will have you discover something new.
Washington explores the philosophical possibilities of counterpoint masterfully, and the result is just sumptuous. If you have even a passing interest in jazz, you should listen to this. If you aren’t very familiar with jazz yet, this could be the perfect place to start.
Buy the release HERE.