Since the surprise success of his triple-album The Epic in 2015, Kamasi Washington’s been put in a weird position: the saviour of jazz.
Never mind how the genre is thriving in different areas – Badbadnotgood’s IV was recently included on the Polaris Prize shortlist, for example –it’s Washington’s who’s become the standard bearer. Which puts him in an awkward spot: The Epic is a great record, but it’s also a long one, nearly three hours from beginning to end. It’s daunting, and doesn’t really lend itself to picking up a track here or there, as if on shuffle. Indeed, live performances of the album are sometimes chopped by almost a third.
Which makes Washington’s new release all the more important.
Harmony of Difference is short, a little over a half-hour long. It’s being marketed as an EP, but really it’s about as long anything Blue Note, ECM or Columbia released back in the day. It’s a single suite of music, which Washington says “balances similarity and difference to create harmony between separate melodies.”
Be that as it may, it also sounds like a checklist of influences and inspirations. Is there a bluesy, Coltrane-like number? Yep. A Latin-tinged, Stan Getz sort of tune? You betcha. A brash, organ-drenched number that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Pharoah Sanders record? Check. In half an hour, he all but name checks a series of influences but does so while remaining firmly in his own camp.
If you’re familiar with The Epic, the music on Harmony of Difference is instantly recognizable.
It swings and Washington’s sax soars. His big band is more than game for the shifting tempos, like on “Humility,” where they move from solo to solo with aplomb. At times, it’ll make you wonder why he isn’t compared more to, say, Duke Ellington than to Coltrane.
But for newcomers, or people who have heard of Washington, but never heard him play, Harmony of Difference is tailor-made for you. It’s a concise musical statement, lacking in filler and full of ideas. The Latin rhythm of “Integrity” is a nice change of pace, while also drawing the listener in. Elsewhere, “Desire” builds from a slow piano-led blues into a nice electric piano solo, lending it a nice, retro feel.
The centrepiece of Harmony of Difference comes on the second half, on the lengthy “Truth” which ties together ideas from the first five tracks, but with a broader sonic palette: here guitars, vibes, and a backing choir push the music to new heights, while Washington lays out into an intense solo, pushing against the rhythm section. It builds to a climax that recalls The Epic, bringing the EP almost full circle, as it were.
With such a short running time, Harmony of Difference doesn’t overstay it’s welcome.
It’s a great introduction to Washington’s music, but with enough happening beneath the surface that even old jazz heads will find stuff to appreciate. In fact, they may even find themselves thinking – for a moment, anyway – that it’s something from 35 to 40 years ago: the way the album’s sequenced seems just about perfect for a vinyl record, with the first five on one side and “Truth” filling up side two.
In all, Harmony of Difference is a highly enjoyable jazz record and perhaps Washington’s finest to date. Even if it’s just a taster for what comes next in his career, it’s a nice statement on it’s own. Don’t sleep on this one.