Kamasi Washington is jazz’s newest saviour
Two years ago, when Kamasi Washington’s mammoth debut album, The Epic, was released, the tenor saxophone virtuoso won instant fame. Clocking in at a few minutes less than 3 hours, the album was hailed as one that would revive jazz, give the genre contemporary appeal, and, most notably, create an audience for it among people who normally weren’t listeners of the genre. All of that may have turned out to be true. Washington has been called jazz’s contemporary genius and with the news that he was going to release his second album this year, anticipation reached new heights among critics, jazz lovers and newbies alike. The new album, Harmony Of Difference, came out last week, and although it is much shorter than The Epic, with six tracks that together make for a little over 30 minutes, it’s another amazing stunner from the 36-year-old Los Angeleno whose unconventional route to jazz stardom can appear baffling.
That’s because Washington comes to jazz by way of hip hop. Of course he’s not a rapper. Born to musical parents, Washington picked up the sax in school, studied ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and eventually played as a sideman with greats such as keyboardists McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock, and bassist Stanley Clarke. But his more recent collaborations are ones that seem out of the ordinary for a traditional jazz musician. For a while he toured with rapper Snoop Dogg as part of his band; and has performed live with former Fugees’ singer Lauryn Hill. Then, in 2015, before The Epic was released, he recorded with rapper Kendrick Lamar on the latter’s Grammy-winning album, To Pimp A Butterfly, on which he played the sax on one song but also arranged strings on others.
The Epic didn’t come from a record label that you would associate with jazz either. It was released on Brainfeeder, an indie label founded by music producer Flying Lotus (aka Steven Ellison), one that is usually associated with electronic music and hip hop. Washington’s gigs following The Epic’s release also took place at venues that normally host indie rockers, rappers and electronic musicians, not exactly places that you would expect a West Coast jazz musician steeped in classic bebop, and influenced by the likes of John Coltrane, to play. The Epic was a grand scale album. Besides Washington’s core band, which included bassists, drummers, keyboardists, other horn players, and vocalists, the record’s making is said to have involved more than 60 musicians. The Epic also shot into the top echelons of several charts and made Washington the darling of jazz lovers, both the serious ones as well as the casual types.
When you first listen to The Epic (and I highly recommend that you keep 173 minutes and 36 seconds free and do it in one go!), the album begins gently before the music gets really dense, intricate and overwhelming. It’s immersive, traditional bebop jazz at its best. His main band, which, besides him, includes two drummers, two bassists (one acoustic and the other electric), a keyboardist and other horn players, put together a complex tapestry of sound, which envelops you in waves. And despite its epic length, the album never feels jaded or stagnant. A comparison that came to mind was Coltrane’s hugely acclaimed A Love Supreme, the 1965 album that many consider to be among the all-time best jazz albums. No wonder The Epic blew away jazz aficionados, purists or otherwise.
Yet, The Epic can be a difficult album to dive into, if you weren’t at least a bit of a jazz lover. To begin with, it is huge and many of the tunes are lengthy, clocking over 12-13 minutes. That and the intensity of the music could take some time to grow on unfamiliar ears. Not so with Harmony Of Difference. Besides being short, the new album has easy entry points for new jazz listeners. In Harmony Of Difference, Washington explores the counterpoint—in jazz it is the interaction of more than one melody in the same composition. And while The Epic had more traditional jazz roots, on the new album he dabbles with other influences: a flourish of calypso here; a touch of Brazilian beats there; and even a bit of smooth jazz. But in the end there is Truth, the sixth tune on the album in which, for more than 13 minutes, he recapitulates the themes of the shorter preceding five tunes and creates what is undoubtedly a fitting finale to the album.
For Harmony Of Difference, Washington signed up with yet another record label, Young Turks, whose catalogue has no jazz musician but others such as British indie pop band, The xx, and the London-based soul and electronic musician Sampha. Incidentally, Washington has collaborated with Sampha as well on a collaborative electronic album. Yet, for all his dabbling in genres ranging from hip hop and soul to electronica and funk, when it comes to jazz, Washington hunkers down to make music that promises to keep that genre alive. He is indeed jazz’s newest saviour.
The Lounge list
Five tracks to bookend this week
1. ‘No Thang On Me’ by Snoop Dogg (featuring Bootsy Collins and Kamasi Washington) from ‘R&G (Rhythm & Gangsta)’
2. ‘Liminality’ by Throttle Elevator Music (featuring Kamasi Washington) from ‘Retrospective’
3. ‘Isabelle’ by Kamasi Washington from ‘The Epic’
4. ‘Truth’ by Kamasi Washington from ‘Harmony Of Difference’
5. ‘Miss Understanding’ by Kamasi Washington from ‘The Epic’
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
He tweets at @sanjoynarayan