Kamasi Washington has become the de facto savior of modern jazz.
In the two years since he released his sprawling, triple-disc album The Epic, saxophonist Kamasi Washington has become the de facto savior of modern jazz, bringing new found relevance and accessibility to an art form that has by some accounts become the rarified realm of virtuosi and academics who treat jazz with a white-gloved curatorial approach worthy of the most sacrosanct of museum relics. This, of course, flies rather ironically in the face of the music’s tradition of being a living, breathing creative outlet of, by and for the people. To be sure, it takes a certain skill set to perform the music, but it was never meant to be as elitist as it has since become within the broader cultural framework. Ever since popular music was abruptly taken over by the likes of rock ‘n’ roll in the late-‘50s, jazz, although it has never truly gone away, has faced a crisis of confidence, falling in and out of favor with the general listening public.
Thanks to the likes of Washington (and Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spaulding and Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner and …), jazz has seen a cultural resurgence, moving beyond mere sample sourcing for crate-digging beat heads searching for the perfect vibe to something bordering on mainstream relevancy. As a form, jazz will likely never reach the same heights as the era to which it lent its name – it’s since become far too esoteric and sprawling in its sonic diversity – yet it’s youthful proponents have imbued the music with a vitality it has been largely lacking over the last several decades.
Much of the success of artists like Washington can be attributed to hip-hop, a genre which for years has piggybacked off of jazz to create the very framework that has made it the most ubiquitous musical idiom in the early part of the 21st century. It makes sense that artists like Washington, Thundercat and Glasper have leveraged their hip-hop connections, working with artists like Kendrick Lamar, Bilal, Erykah Badu, Yasiin Bey and a host of others to raise their profiles and in the process garner a new appreciation for the music. Building on the momentum of his appropriately titled The Epic, Washington continues to explore his soulful brand of maximalist jazz on his new EP.
Stylistically, the just-shy-of-30-minutes release mines much of the same territory as its predecessor: There are massive, emotionally-driven swells; cinematic choirs; urgently propulsive, yet ultimately soulful grooves aplenty; and, atop it all, Washington’s soaring saxophone. He’s still heavily indebted to soul jazz and the more progressive elements of early-’70s Impulse! records, but he lends the proceedings his own indelible stamp, sounding as vibrant and contemporarily relevant now as he might have in the years preceding his own birth. Opening track “Desire” crashes on a wave of genteel summer soul, exhibiting a warmth and familiarity that immediately draws the listener in without any of the typically alienating tendencies erroneously ascribed to jazz.
Operating within a shorter compositional framework, Harmony of Difference relies on sub-five-minute tracks that flow suite-like from one to the next. Listening without taking note of when one track shifts to the next, the EP instead feels like one extended, shifting melodic idea that moves forward without pause to create a musical and stylistic cohesion that relies on harmony in both senses of the word; “Desire” moves into “Humility” which moves into “Knowledge,” “Perspective” and “Integrity.”
Washington and company continue to build and build over the course of the EP’s six tracks until they reach the triumphant climax of closing track “Truth.” The musical equivalent of a John Ford western in its scope and overwhelming hugeness, it’s easily as good – if not better- than anything The Epic had to offer. Building and surging forward on a slowly unfurling, unstoppable groove that adds layer upon layer of musical counterpoint (the stylistic genesis employed throughout the project) to create a wildly diverse sea of commingling melodies and sonic textures that embody the spirit of the social, cultural, ideological, theosophical and political differences on which we as a society have been shaped. A melting pot in the best sense of the word, “Truth” is nothing short of brilliant.
If Harmony of Difference is any indication, Washington is far from running short on ideas, the EP a fully-realized album in miniature rather than a stop-gap release. A vital voice in increasingly uncertain times, Washington picks up on the mantle of his predecessors, serving as the creative musical voice this generation – and our world in general – so desperately needs, channeling the spiritualism of John Coltrane and Yusef Lateef (among others) and bringing their ideas of universal oneness through music into the modern age. His latest is a revelatory celebration of both harmony and difference, something all too lacking in the age of Trump.