The Nuanced Bluster of Kamasi Washington

Two years after The Epic, the saxophonist is back with a lush, soaring ode to unity.

Kamasi Washington performs at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival
Amy Harris / Invision / AP

“He just played the craziest shit, man. I mean everything—the past, present, the future,” the producer Flying Lotus once said of his friend and collaborator, the Los Angeles–based saxophonist Kamasi Washington. The horn player, who emerged in 2015 as a nostalgic figure in modern jazz, blew with the same fire as John Coltrane, Sun Ra, and Pharoah Sanders, and his massive debut album—a three-hour jaunt called The Epic—proved he had an ear for the same blustery compositions.

The Epic was, perhaps more than anything, bold: A long jazz record in an era of diminished attention spans, it required patience to fully absorb. Across 17 tracks and 173 minutes, the album had a bit of everything: gospel selections (“Henrietta Our Hero,” “The Rhythm Changes”), big-band tunes (“Askim,” “Change of the Guard”), and ’70s-inspired funk fusion (“Final Thought,” “Re Run Home”). Arriving a couple of months after Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 avant-rap opus To Pimp a Butterfly—on which Washington, the pianist Robert Glasper, the producer Terrace Martin, and the bassist Thundercat fused their blend of jazz with West Coast G-funk—The Epic did for jazz what Butterfly did for rap: It proved there’s widespread interest and room in the marketplace for creatively challenging art across genres. There was a rich, spiritual essence to Washington’s music; it was equally boundless, familiar, and new.

Two years later, and Washington is the trendiest musician in mainstream jazz. Having played with everyone from the jazz legends Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock to the rapper Snoop Dogg, Washington has been dubbed something of a jazz savior, honoring traditional aspects of the genre while developing his own sound. For his impressive new EP, Harmony of Difference, Washington explores counterpoint, with versions of the same melody appearing in each song; it’s a lush 30-minute suite that pulls R&B and bossa nova into the mix.

Harmony premiered in full at the 2017 Whitney Biennial this spring, along with a short film helmed by the music-video director A.G. Rojas and original artwork by Washington’s sister, Amani, who created five paintings, then combined the images for a sixth painting: an abstract depiction of a human face. Harmony of Difference takes the same approach: Its first five songs work well as standalone cuts, but when they’re blended into the final track—the 13-minute “Truth”—the dissonant pieces come together, presenting a complete melodic portrait. By letting the tracks play out before bringing them into one arrangement, Washington highlights the power of unity. Referencing the fraught political climate, he told The New York Times in March about his priorities for the album: “I didn’t want it to sound chaotic. I wanted to show how you can pull these different musical pieces together in a way that felt harmonious.”

Musically, Harmony of Difference continues where The Epic left off; it’s a large-scale record built on grand, instrumental structures. Though similar in tone, Harmony feels subtler than its predecessor and pays stricter attention to nuance. On “Desire,” for instance, Washington takes some of the steam out of his horn, trading his combustible style for a temperate one. The song culminates midway through: Just as Washington begins to ramp up the sax, he recedes, letting the notes echo in the distance.

The mood shifts dramatically on the EP’s next track, “Humility,” a volcanic mix of wind instruments, soaring piano chords, and layered percussion. It’s a wonderful tune (and perhaps the second best on this set), but it scans too closely to the Epic opener “Change of the Guard” and retreads old ground. But the tracks “Perspective” and “Integrity” suggest new creative directions for Washington—the former seems influenced by late-’70s R&B, the latter by the likes of the Brazilian soul icons Gilberto Gil and Sergio Mendes. That Washington can organize such varied sound is his greatest gift, and on “Truth,” he funnels sacred and contemporary music into a resonant compilation.

Much like The Epic, Harmony arrives to a world fractured along racial and political lines, but the new album’s meditative vibe is far removed from the weariness of daily existence in 2017. With songs dedicated to slain civil-rights leaders, The Epic spoke directly to black people sagging under the weight of systemic oppression, still raw from the unjustified killings of people of color by law enforcement. Harmony, it could be said, speaks to the human race as a whole, reminding listeners that there’s room for all people, regardless of skin color or political affiliation. It may not have the same groundswell as The Epic, but its scope is equally important. It’s a victory lap with the promise of greater things on the horizon.