Kamasi Washington‘s latest EP, Harmony of Difference, wasn’t conceived as an album at all. It was created as the audio portion of a multi-media exhibit at New York’s vaunted Whitney Museum as part of their long-running and highly-regarded biennial survey of American art. “Normally when I write, the music comes first, and then I basically try to figure out what it’s about just like anyone else,” Kamasi says with a laugh via a phone call from Illinois. “It comes, I write it out, play it, and then I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s what this is.’ But the idea of a Harmony of Difference was what came first.” It was a study counterpoint, an exercise in introspection, in making opposing ideas come together to create something greater than the sum of its parts.
Out of that over-arching idea grew a single, specific focus: an examination of Truth, its composite notions and emotions, and the path that one must traverse to attain it. “I was trying to think of, you know, within this idea of Harmony of Difference, what I’m really trying to give to you…and that’s where ‘Truth’ came from. So [the EP’s final track] ‘Truth’ was actually the first title.”
With “Truth” as a starting point, Kamasi began to conduct a logical emotional inventory of what that lofty ideal truly entails, and the concepts for the project’s individual movements followed. He continues, “I tried to think of, almost, the steps, or the path, to finding ‘Truth’, and sort of write the songs from those ideas.”
As he begins to explain the meaning and placement of each Harmony of Difference movement, the big picture of the project comes into focus, and the tissues connecting the tracks’ distinct themes begin to show: “So [Opening track] ‘Desire’ is the beginning stage of someone’s journey to a greater Truth—you have to want it. And if you don’t really want it, you’re never gonna get it, because it’s something you have to work at,” he instructs. “Then ‘Humility’ is about being honest with yourself that you don’t know. So you have to want the Truth, and then you have to be honest and sure enough of yourself to accept the fact that you don’t have it. That can be the most difficult thing, actually, accepting your own weaknesses and your own failures and your own defeats.”
“‘Knowledge’“, he goes on, “is the true first step: To learn, to go out, observe, experience things. Then there’s ‘Perspective’—the wisdom that comes from knowledge, you know? Knowledge in itself is not very useful without a greater understanding and a greater realization of what you are in perspective, with the knowledge that you have—What is your perspective, what are you trying to understand, how does your knowledge relate to that. And then ‘Integrity’ is basically the final stage…At the end of the day, if you go on that journey, whatever truth you’re looking for, you’ll probably find it–but a lot of times what you find is not what you wanted. To really have that Truth, you have to have integrity…accept what you get.”
Listen to Kamasi Washington’s ‘Harmony of Difference’ below:
[Photo: Phierce Photo by Keith G.]
Kamasi Washington’s five-step program—”Desire”, “Humility”, “Knowledge”, “Perspective”, “Integrity”—culminates in the lengthy, multi-part “Truth”, a sonic and thematic distillation of the individual movements’ themes. In the Whitney exhibit, a film was displayed featuring five paintings focused on raw shapes and colors, each inspired by one of the first five movements of the suite. For the final number, the paintings were layered on top of each other to create a new, sixth image: an abstract depiction of a human face–the creation of harmony and cohesiveness out of difference; the attainment of Truth.
All five pieces, refracted emotions, together reveal a single, more complete ideal when observed through the philosophical lens Kamasi lays out. But to hear Kamasi say it feels almost too simple—or, at the very least, much easier said than done. Why else would today’s world have such a tenuous grasp on the concept of Truth? Particularly in recent weeks, we’ve witnessed a deluge of past victims of assault and impropriety come forward and reveal truths that they’ve been forced to internalize for years. We’ve seen countless people we once admired and respected cast in starkly horrifying light as the truth of their actions bubbles to the surface, challenging our perceptions of the world.
“I think it’s great that people are finally pulling those veils back. And I think the next step is actually doing something to not just punish, but prevent. I think that there’s a shortage of education and understanding,” he explains. “You know, racism, sexism, bigotry—all those things…they’re knowledge, they’re learned. I feel like, in general, they are pressed upon people, pushed upon them. And if we just kind of sit back passively and accept them, then they’re gonna show up. You have to be proactive. You have to go after these views before they manifest…Ignorance is the real root of most of our problems. And most of what it is is just a lack of knowledge. Most people are trying to do the right thing, they just don’t know…People who have been out there a little bit and have had experiences and had real connections with lots of different people, those people are rarely the ones with the most prejudices.”
“I think knowledge is a bit more easily manipulated than truth is. It’s all part of the story. The information—even the accurate information—is only part of the whole story, you know what I mean?” He goes on, “There should be a ‘Humanity’ class for kids…to teach you acceptance, fairness…I know people don’t want others’ moralities being pressed upon them. But I think that there’s a kind of baseline level of morality that we all can come in agreement over. And there should be more education in that. Because [these views] form as a kid. We need to teach understanding…It’s the difference between ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge,’ you know what I mean?”
[Photo: Phierce Photo by Keith G.]
Kamasi Washington got his education in understanding—in the harmony of difference—coming up in the L.A. jazz world. It afforded him a crash course on the inherent Truth in live performance, in chemistry; that intangible yet all-too-real “lightning-in-a-bottle” feeling you can’t quite catch with a recording.
“It is kind of hard to capture that feeling in a record because when you listen to a live performance, in a way, you’re a contributor. When you listen to a recording, you’re an observer.” Kamasi explains. “When you listen to a recording, you’re observing a moment in time. When you listen to a live show, you’re in a moment in time.”
“I’m super sensitive to that, deliberately,” says Washington. “I try to make the music a reflection of the moment and time and place that I’m in. I kind of try to take the vibe that’s in the room and start there, and then go somewhere from there. You can feel it as the set’s going. You feel where the energy is kind of moving, you know, and just go with that. It always ends up making music more fun,” he says. “It’s almost like ‘rowing with the current’ or ‘rowing against it,’ you know? If you’re rowing with the current, then you really get to movin’, and the music is just wide open. But you kind of have to let go—let go of any preconceived notions of what the show was gonna be, and let it be what it is.”
Kamasi has vivid memories of the nights when that intangible feeling was in play. “Those moments, where it’s just special, I’ve had a lot of them,” he reflects. “Definitely that first show we did [behind The Epic]—my album release party—it’s a strong memory for me, because it was almost, like, my whole musical community: my whole city, my whole family, extended family, beyond just my blood.”
“The Los Angeles music scene, and especially the jazz scene has been so opaque for so long, and that show just felt like the Berlin Wall coming down,” he remembers with a laugh.
“That night, it felt like it was bigger than the music. Musically, it was great, but even beyond that, it was really that thing of the whole room really being in one place, in one mind, in one thing. And it was a long one—I think we played, like, five hours, or something crazy like that. But it felt like one minute.”
Watch footage from Kamasi Washington’s album release party For The Epic below:
As he’s broken out of L.A. and into the great big world beyond it, Kamasi Washington has worked with a dizzying array of artists from the furthest opposing corners of the music world. From St. Vincent to Run The Jewels, Soulive to Herbie Hancock—from jamming on festival main stages with The String Cheese Incident to composing orchestrations for Kendrick Lamar‘s revered 2015 studio album, To Pimp A Butterfly.
Kamasi’s creative palette has colored music that could not sound more different–and that’s by design. He’s quick to explain in what ways playing with a String Cheese Incident differs from working with a Kendrick Lamar: “Oh, well, kinda, in every way possible,” he decides with a chuckle, reflecting on the bizarre fact that his resume prompts any connection between the ski-town jam band and the conscious Compton rapper.
“That’s been my upbringing as a musician: just playing with different people, different styles,” he says. “I go into each one with a blank slate. I don’t even try to do what I do with Kendrick with String Cheese. If I’m playing with someone else and it’s their thing, I always try to speak their dialect, you know? But then try to bring something to it. It’s almost like, I come to the party prepared to eat the meal you prepared, but then I bring a dessert, you know? [laughs] Or I’ll bring a bottle of wine or something. So when I come to play with String Cheese, I try to get in their vibe and then see if there’s something in there that maybe I can add. Like ‘this would be nice in here, but it’s not there, so maybe I can add that. Okay, cool.’ And that’s all part of that experience. So what I may be able to add to them is different from what I may be able to add to Kendrick, because what Kendrick is trying to do is so different from what they’re trying to do.”
String Cheese Incident with Kamasi Washington & Sheryl Renee — “I Want To Take You Higher”, Red Rocks, 7/16/2017
[Video: The String Cheese Incident]
As to which paths his journey may take next, Kamasi Washington is, as usual, open to whatever comes. “The world kind of dictates it, in a lot of ways,” he says pensively. “I don’t know…And myself–I change, the world changes. When I was making The Epic, it was really about trying to express who I am. That’s what I was really trying to do. Because at that point in my life, that was kind of missing. I was using my talents to express other people’s feelings, other people’s visions. And I felt like I was almost losing sight of my own, so that was the reason I had that ‘moment’. On Harmony of Difference, it was about how the world was going—overarching energy and air was starting to turn. I felt compelled to do something to counteract it. Everyone was throwing dirt, let me sweep some up [laughs], because that’s where I felt like I was at.”
“Lately,” he confides, “I’ve been playing so much of my own music and touring for so long that I felt like, kinda, in my own head a bit. And so that’s kind of where my energy is now, it’s kind of really introspective—looking at who I am, what I am, what do I really think. I feel like it changes. I never wanna lock myself into one thing because that may not be what’s me, you know? You wanna be open. You don’t wanna always be wearing hiking boots, and then you get to the lake and you’ve gotta swim, you know what I mean? I kinda keep it open. One day I might need to climb, another day I might need to swim.”
Whether he’s hiking, swimming, flying, or trying something new and different we haven’t seen before; whatever journeys he goes on next—all signs indicate that it will be a path worth following with him. And that’s the truth…
On Wednesday, November 22nd, Kamasi Washington will make his way to Terminal 5 NYC for a special Thanksgiving-Eve performance featuring an appearance from sacred steel guitar master Robert Randolph with special guests Break Science. As Kamasi notes, “There’s an intensity to New York which I don’t think exists anywhere else.”
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