Review: Kamasi Washington, Harmony of Difference

Kamasi Washington Harmony of Difference art

My first experience with counterpoint was being forced to learn Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Fugue No. 2 in C Minor, BMV 847”. And I hated it. Not the piece: I hated that my piano teacher made me learn each voice separately; as a hot-headed teen, I was more willing to learn a piece by (clumsily) sight-reading both hands simultaneously. (The prelude being more forgiving of my methods.) The idea of learning a piece not just one hand at a time, but one voice at a time, was trying (that particular fugue has three distinct voices). She was right to teach it that way, of course, because when she finally gave me the green light to play both hands and all three voices at the same time, I heard three melodies overlapping one another to create one of the finest harmonies I’d ever hear.

I bring this up because Harmony of Difference has a lot to do with counterpoint; creating harmony through different melodies in the hopes “that witnessing the beautiful harmony created by merging different musical melodies will help people realize the beauty in our own differences.”

If music theory is an alien language to you, maybe the word “counterpoint” means nothing; ditto Kamasi Washington’s above statement, especially if you’re a cynic. So let’s break it down. The first song on Harmony of Difference goes like this: Miles Mosely (bass) lays down a foundation for four measures; a keyboard comes in like a shooting star before twinkling away; Kamasi Washington enters, playing a different melody than Miles Mosely; the drums doing their own little lyrical thing, and that keyboard adding color wherever it sees fit. That swelling mass is counterpoint done well.

I’ve had my difficulties with The Epic because it generated more hype in indie circles than every other jazz record of this decade combined. (In fairness, it also seemed to have more music than all those records combined.) I think back to Esperanza Spalding’s response to Pitchfork’s question, “Do you feel like you are representing jazz to the nation?”: “I shouldn’t be. With all the motherfuckers who are still alive today who are the essence of that music, it’s bullshit if I am representing jazz.” Of course, Kamasi Washington’s trajectory was also unlike any other jazz artist, releasing a debut album that spanned three hours on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder hot on the heels of his contribution to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.

It’s not surprising that Kamasi Washington’s follow-up is a tightened 30-minute EP; it felt like The Epic was the result of years (if not a life-time) of hard work, whereas he only had a few years to come up with Harmony. But I’m pleased to say that it’s no less epic, at least in scope: “Humility” is pure big band; “Perspective” is light funk; my first thought while listening to “Integrity” was a zippier Calypso cut on a late-period Sonny Rollins album. A bigger surprise: moving from Brainfeeder to Young Turks, home of FKA twigs, Sampha and the xx.

And “Truth” brings back the cinematic maximalism of The Epic: as Kamasi’s team is joined by a 9-voice choir, an orchestra and Thundercat. Released previously and out of the EP’s context for an exhibit Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2017 Biennial, it seemed like more of the same. Closing out the EP, however, you can hear motifs from every previous song: the 3-note bass-line of “Desire”; the theme of “Humility”, played on Brandon Coleman’s shimmery keyboard instead of blasted out, before Kamasi Washington counterpoints with “Knowledge”’s theme. It’s on “Truth” where Kamasi Washington plays to his strengths; it was on Run the Jewels 3’s “Thursday in the Danger Room” that made me think Kamasi was better at the themes than he was the solos, and it wasn’t until hearing Harmony that made me think Kendrick had the right idea when he brought Kamasi in to do strings on “LUST.” rather than play saxophone. Successful counterpoint requires a lot of compositional thought, and it isn’t until “Truth” where it’s revealed just how much thought was put into the EP’s overall composition.

In other words, this is a record where the sum is greater than the parts, whereas The Epic was its parts (and having a lot of them). Harmony of Difference is another win in Kamasi Washington’s book, and I’m no less excited for his next move. A MINUS