Saxophonist Kamasi Washington Seeks Unity In A Time Of Division In His 'Harmony Of Difference'
“Music is such a powerful aspect of our humanity. I never met anyone who doesn’t like music. They may not like this style of music or that style of music, but there’s something that moves you. It’s a very spiritual experience even if you don’t believe in that. It taps into that side of who we are. You can see it. In a room full of strangers, a song will come on and then all of the sudden [they’re] connected, they’re together and they’re one,” says saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington.
On Monday, Nov. 20, at the Royale, the Los Angeles born and bred musician, is bringing his larger-than-life brand of jazz to Boston, in support of his new EP “Harmony of Difference,” which aims to do just that, unite.
The “Harmony of Difference” premiered as a multimedia exhibit at the 2017 Whitney Biennial with a film by A.G. Rojas and paintings by Washington’s sister, Amani Washington. The music explores how seemingly opposing forces can come together in unity using counterpoint, where the same melody appears in each song but is presented in a different way. Each of the five songs, “Desire,” “Humility,” “Knowledge,” “Perspective” and “Integrity,” are threaded together in a 13-minute track, “Truth.”
In a nation that, at times, feels more divided every day, Washington’s earnest EP on the Young Turk’s label is a welcome respite.
“It was Caius [Pawson] from Young Turks who convinced me that, you know, even though I made it for the Whitney Museum, the idea and the reality of it was important enough that it shouldn’t be limited to just the people that could make it to New York during that span of time,” says Washington.
He fondly recalls the various ethnic groups in his hometown and how he wanted the EP to speak to the beauty of diversity.
“Once you’ve experienced it [the coming together of different people from different places] you realize it’s a gift. It’s not something to be tolerated, it’s something that should be celebrated,” Washington says.
It’s this thoughtfulness and Washington’s incredible work ethic that make this rising star shine so brightly.
The second-generation musician — his father Rickey is a singer, songwriter, saxophonist and flute player — has had a remarkable few years basking in the favor of critics and fans worldwide after delivering his 2015 LP “The Epic,” which boldly presented nearly three hours of genre-pushing jazz with a band, a celestial sounding choir and an orchestra.
His newest project may seem scant in comparison, delivering just over 30 minutes of music through six tracks. But, despite its brevity, "Harmony" is a passionate kiss that’s over too soon, leaving listeners yearning for more as they ruminate on the message behind the project long after the last song ends.
In addition to releasing the EP, Washington has stayed busy with high profile collaborations with friends and contemporaries such as Thundercat, Miles Mosley and Cameron Graves from the West Coast Get Down collective; Ibeyi, Run the Jewels, St. Vincent and Kendrick Lamar. He’s scored music for films including “Color Guard,” and Independent Lens’ “Crips and Bloods: Made In America,” and was featured on the soundtrack for the Netflix original TV show “The Get Down.”
Washington is working at a frenzied pace, with a career that many aspiring musicians hope to have. But his journey to this point has been more than 20 years in the making.
“I started playing music when I was really young. I was about 12 when I first started playing the saxophone. I started off on drums and then piano and then I played clarinet. I wanted to switch to saxophone but my dad wouldn’t let me. He wanted me to get better at the clarinet before I switched. But he left the saxophone out one day. I picked it up and could pretty much immediately play my favorite song. It just felt like the sound I’d been hearing in my head. The idea of music that I’d been searching for came to me instantly at that moment,” he explains.
Now, when he’s jamming onstage, buried deep inside the sounds of his saxophone with his eyes closed, it’s evident that there’s no place else in the world that he’d rather be.
“For a lot of shows, I really try to make it a unique experience for that space and time. In that first song, we gather everyone together and go on a journey,” says Washington.
“It’s not like I’m performing for you. We experience it together.”
Kamasi Washington performs Monday, Nov. 20, at the Royale.