3 Oct 2017

Review: Kamasi Washington - bridging the gap between jazz and pop

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 3 October 2017

Kamasi Washington has been confirmed as one of the artists who will perform in New Zealand at WOMAD 2018. Nick Bollinger discusses the ecstatic jazz of the Los Angeles saxophonist and how he's bridging the gap between jazz and pop.

Kamasi Washington

Kamasi Washington Photo: supplied

The worlds of jazz and popular music can seem a long way apart. One screams art, the other commerce. Jazz’s emphasis on improvised soloing might be forbidding to anyone who prioritises hooks and choruses.

But Kamasi Washington is one jazz musician whose audience has grown to encompass a lot of listeners who might not have paid much attention to jazz before - and that is without sacrificing his art or his soloing.

It hasn’t hurt that the Los Angeles-based saxophone player has a foot in the highly visible world of hip-hop, notably through contributing his sax and arrangements to Kendrick Lamar’s blockbuster To Pimp A Butterfly.

But if Kendrick helped turned some hip-hop heads Washington’s way, Washington was ready with something to show them: a 172-minute triple album, The Epic, that presented his post-bop soloing in a kind of grand conceptual setting more typical of hip-hop, if not prog-rock. With string section and choir augmenting what was already a large group by jazz standards (including two drummers), The Epic was aptly named.

Arriving two years later, and only 30 minutes in length, Harmony Of Difference can’t help but seem modest by comparison. And yet it has its own kind of conceptual grandeur.

There are six tracks, each of which he has named after one of the virtues - humility, integrity, perspective - culminating in the thirteen-minute opus he calls ‘Truth’.

Washington is both a highly proficient and passionate player. I hear traces of Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Sonny Rollins, yet the voice is unmistakably his own as he solos with a tugging urgency that suggests he has something really important to impart.

If the propulsive swing brings to mind the pre-fusion jazz of the 60s, he’s piled on top of that elements of subsequent African-American styles. There’s soul and funk, especially when Stephen Bruner - the electric bass player known as Thundercat – takes over the bottom end. There’s a gospel choir, an intrinsic element of The Epic that he weaves into this new suite as well. And in combination with the big string and horn arrangements, the sound recalls nothing less than Marvin Gaye’s monumental soul opus What’s Going On.

It’s maximalist stuff. And really the sheer architecture of the whole thing is Washington’s great achievement, more than the strength of his compositions. His melodies are simple, potentially cheesy. Yet when that simplicity is combined with the big sonic artillery, they take on the quality of blazing pop hooks.

The other hook that Washington’s music offers is a philosophical/spiritual one. Originally composed for New York’s Whitney Museum of Modern Art Biennial, where it was accompanied by a specially commissioned video, Harmony Of Difference was inspired by Washington’s experience growing up in Los Angeles, where – contrary to the popular narrative – he saw many different cultures living in happy co-existence. It might seem utopian, and the opposite of the picture painted by so much hip-hop, but it would be hard to deny its appeal. And there is an ecstatic, celebratory mood that runs right through Harmony Of Difference, as it builds towards its thundering, transcendent climax.

Kamasi Washington’s Harmony Of Difference conveys its message without words, and it’s an uplifting one. Focus on the virtues –  humility, integrity, and so on - Washington seems to be saying, and this kind of harmony can be everyone’s.

Kamasi Washington will perform at Auckland's Powestationg on Friday, March 16 and at the 2018 WOMAD festival on Saturday, March 17.

Check out the rest of RNZ Music's WOMAD coverage.