Jazz Club Solo Session // Kamasi Washington’s Harmony of Difference

The search for the greatest jazz album of the decade ended in 2015 when LA-based saxophonist and bandleader Kamasi Washington released his aptly titled debut, The Epic. A nearly three-hour

7 years ago

The search for the greatest jazz album of the decade ended in 2015 when LA-based saxophonist and bandleader Kamasi Washington released his aptly titled debut, The Epic. A nearly three-hour love letter to the genre’s greatest attributes, The Epic is the kind of album that could sustain an artist’s legacy on its own merits alone; follow-ups are welcome, of course, but admittedly unnecessary for the endeavor of establishing Kamasi’s longevity of influence. Though these claims may seem bold, there’s a reason the album inspired the launch of our Jazz Club column and became perhaps the first pure jazz album to ever land among on our collective Albums of the Year. The ensemble’s performances of Kamasi’s compositions are nothing short of enthralling, whether they’re soaring through swirls of gospel choruses and inspired playing or masterfully moving through contemplative moods. Every track is an epic statement in its own right, and by the time the album concludes, listeners should be awed by the manner in which Kamasi maintains intrigue and quality across such an overwhelming run time.

With all this in mind, it seems difficult to take an objective approach to Harmony of Difference, a follow-up EP that’s structurally antithetical to any of the three volumes of The Epic, let alone the album as a whole. The EP presents a challenging conundrum for the listener that surely weighed on Kamasi’s mind when constructing its six songs, all but one of which contains at least two fewer minutes of run time than the shortest song on The Epic. None of this was definitive proof that Harmony of Difference would disappoint, of course. After all, if Kamasi can captivate listeners on 10+ minute epics, surely the task of writing something a bit more digestible should prove to be a simple task. Yet, the fickle beast of “hype” still finds a way to say its piece and beg the question—when an artist debuts with what will likely be their magnum opus, how can they ensure they don’t overshadow their subsequent releases?

The very act of releasing an EP of this scope proves Kamasi is fully aware of this question and knew exactly how to answer it with a retort strong enough to crush any shred of doubt listeners may have had. While I disagree with those who argue that the album format is dying, we’re undoubtedly witnessing a complete overhaul of the traditional album cycle. Fans are accustomed to  the trend of artists releasing a brand new collection of songs multiple times a year, and in the case of some genres, this practice of continuous creation is an artist’s only means of retaining the attention of listeners and critics alike. The Epic defies this formula by its very nature; to produce an immediate follow-up even a year or two after releasing such a meticulously crafted and intricately operating album would have tarnished Kamasi’s legacy moving forward and prompted the music community to label the record as a brief flash of brilliance in a rusty, unremarkable pan.

This is precisely why Kamasi was right to pursue the actions he took over the past two years. After touring behind The Epic, he withdrew himself from the spotlight to focus on guest appearances and arrangements for artists like Ibeyi, Kendrick Lamar and Run the Jewels. And now that some time has passed, he’s returned with an EP comprised of enough music to satiate fans while providing a buffer between The Epic and his proper sophomore album. This not only provides hims the ability to stagger his larger artistic statements, but also allows him to test out some new territory while refining the approach that defined The Epic‘s success.

Now that we’ve moved past that admittedly gratuitous contextualization, allow me to make this next point clearly and succinctly: Harmony of Difference is phenomenal. The EP is chock full of brilliant material that will inspire old fans to revisit The Epic while also providing an olive branch to jazz fans and genre newcomers who were put off by the album’s three-hour run time. Harmony of Difference is a summation of everything Kamasi excels at as a player and composer, which he proves with songs that rest firmly in his wheelhouse and others that dance on the outskirts.

“Truth” is the closest thing the EP offers in the way of an Epic b-side. Kamasi’s composition at first evokes a light, delicate mood, accented by an infectious melody. Bass and vibraphone engage in a casual dance to bring this melody to life before the track swells into an awing choral crescendo, one of Kamasi’s greatest compositional tools. As the voices fade, Kamasi flexes his muscles and unleashes the might of his saxophone wizardry. I’ve settled on describing his playing as a combination of the liberated, spiritual playing of Pharaoh Sanders with the Goliath technical prowess of John Coltrane and passionate fearlessness of Ornette Coleman. After his performance concludes, a string arrangement and slick guitar passage intertwine to once again build up the melody that launched the track into being, paving the way for percussion, brass, voices and the rest of Kamasi’s ensemble to slowly lend their weight to the track’s grandiosity. The magnitude reached by the song’s conclusion is nothing short of glorious, and it perfectly encapsulates Kamasi’s genius approach to jazz.

Before Kamasi closes out the EP with “Truth,” he sways through five relatively brief experiments that extract different aspects of his sound and direct them into fresh ideas. “Desire” presents a smooth, laid back introduction, dialing down a cool jazz foundation and adding lounge jazz aesthetics. Kamasi amps up his performance just enough to remind the listener of his prowess without overwhelming his ensemble, maintaining a slick vibe along with a strong foundation of organ, piano and mild electronics. The track provides a perfect palette cleanser before the raucous big band bombast of “Humility,” a composition that defies its title with bright, confident horns that launch a triumphant, swinging hook before energetic piano, trumpet and—of course—sax solos. Kamasi steals the show with his short but sweet riffing, offering a bite-sized taste of his playing at it’s unhinged peak.

The burst of energy shrinks back down on “Knowledge” as the ensemble breathes life into Kamasi’s signature approach to balancing texture and tempo. He knows exactly how to present a standard, mid-paced song that’s bursting with so much depth and careful orchestration so as to feel vibrant and much larger, faster and more invigorating than the genre’s comparable offerings. “Perspective” follows in a similar vein, adding in some funk undertones courtesy of a prominent, slapping base groove and driving percussion. And of course, Kamasi continues to dazzle with his sax playing; his phrasing is so pronounced and bold, yet he effortlessly achieves an organic flow, gliding seamlessly through each note and riff. Yet, as he demonstrates on “Integrity,” he knows how to fall back and weave his playing into the surrounding performances. Even during his solo he ebbs and flows with the tropical percussion and atmosphere of his ensemble so as to continue propelling the track forward rather than grabbing the spotlight.

Though I couldn’t help but discuss “Truth” first, it’s a truly remarkable closer that ties everything together and leaves the listener with an insatiable desire for more. That’s the greatest strength Kamasi displays on Harmony of Difference: a keen ability to somehow fulfill listeners’ desire for quality jazz while also leaving them clamoring for what else he has to offer. And with some slightly more loose and breezy compositions, it’s clear he has no shortage of ideas left up his sleeve for future releases. Now that he’s created a proper bridge between The Epic and whatever comes after, fans can wait in anxious anticipation for the next culmination of Kamasi’s mastery of the jazz blueprint and unbridled desire to expand the framework contained therein. Everyone knew topping The Epic would be a difficult task, which is why Harmony of Difference was the perfect means of reminding fans that Kamasi is more than up to the challenge.

Harmony of Difference is available now via Young Turks.

Scott Murphy

Published 7 years ago