Kamasi Washington‘s The Epic technically wasn’t the Los Angeles jazz saxophonist’s debut release, but it’s hard to think of a more ambitious recording to serve as an introduction to most listeners. Spread out over three LPs, six sides and nearly three hours of music, The Epic found the up-and-coming jazz artist setting his sights on something much greater than a humble niche audience. Employing a choir of vocalists, some of the best musicians on the West Coast (sometimes including bass hero Thundercat as well as his brother, drummer Ronald Bruner) and a concept narrative that transcended a more loosely structured hard bop approach, Kamasi Washington looked toward the cosmos for inspiration, and the end result was something that changed the narrative for contemporary jazz, as well as having delivered it to a receptive if surprised audience via the more beat-driven label outpost Brainfeeder.
To expect Washington to follow-up The Epic with something quite so massive just two years after the fact would be asking a lot of him, though it’s not as if his new EP, Harmony of Difference, isn’t ambitious. For an EP, first of all, it’s still over a half-hour in length, so it surpasses most punk albums in that regard. But it’s still a fairly highbrow affair, a Whitney Biennial project based around the musical concept of “counterpoint,” which in Washington’s own words is “the art of balancing similarity and difference to create harmony between separate melodies.” Washington explores this theory-based musical idea through six tracks—”Desire,” “Humility,” “Knowledge,” “Perspective,” “Integrity” and “Truth”—each of which feels like part of a bigger, cohesive whole.
Understanding music theory isn’t necessary to enjoy Harmony of Difference. For those with a background in music, there’s a lot to chew on, and even those who don’t would likely pick up on some of the harmonic techniques explored to achieve a different end regarding Washington’s own interpretation of counterpoint. But then again, it’s also just a celebration of music itself and a pretty stellar set of six spiritual jazz tracks, all of which take on a different stylistic approach. The upbeat “Integrity” employs elements of Samba for a Brazilian-inspired take, while “Desire” has a soulful, low-key sound that eases the listener in before some of Washington’s more sprawling experiments. Yet “Humility” is the most urgent of the bunch, a big and brassy standout with swing to spare.
One piece on Harmony of Difference overshadows the others, however, and for good reason. Closing track “Truth,” which occupies an entire side of vinyl, is a 13-plus-minute dynamo that echoes some of the more ambitious tracks on The Epic. Here it serves as a kind of powerful conclusion, incorporating elements of each of the previous tracks into one suite that stretches out while bringing the listener in closer. It’s a big statement, but it’s also a warmly accessible one, not to mention breathtaking. Harmony of Difference is about two hours shorter than Kamasi Washington’s previous record, but the grand concept remains, as does the richness of his arrangements. Even on a small scale, everything he does is massive.