Q&A: How Kamasi Washington is using music to create empathy

The jazz-expanding L.A. saxophonist explains how his new EP Harmony Of Difference finds unity in diversity

KAMASI WASHINGTON at Danforth Music Hall (147 Danforth), Thursday (November 16), doors 6 pm & 9:30 pm. $35.50-$45.50. ticketmaster.ca.

“I didn’t intend for the EP to be an EP,” explains saxophonist/composer Kamasi Washington over the phone from Madison, Wisconsin. 

He’s speaking about his contemplative new six-track Harmony Of Difference (Young Turks), which the L.A. musician made as part of a multimedia exhibit for the Whitney Museum Biennial in New York City, which also featured paintings by his sister Amani Washington and a short film by director A.G. Rojas.

“I was so wrapped up in touring and working on the exhibit. But when [Young Turks’] Caius Pawson heard the whole piece, he was like, ‘Man, you definitely need to share this.’ It was like someone turned the light on and I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re right. I should,’” he says with a laugh. 

His mammoth three-hour album The Epic won the jazz musician major crossover acclaim in 2015. Now he’s using wisdom he gained travelling the world to explore ideas of diversity and unity using the musical technique of counterpoint. 

Washington talked to NOW about re-imagining Donald Trump’s divisive America and how music can help repair it.

How does Harmony Of Difference promote diversity?

When the Whitney Museum invited me to be a part of the Biennial, I was really struggling to figure out what I wanted to do. But at that time we started to see the reality of a possible Donald Trump presidency. It got to a place where people were shining such a negative light on the idea of diversity, making it seem that if what you believe and the language you speak and the way you view the world isn’t parallel to another person’s views then you were a problem. 

I never looked at the idea of diversity as a problem. It’s a blessing, it’s a gift. I wanted to create something that celebrated it and push back against this attack. 

What is counterpoint?

It’s when you take different melodic figures and shape them to be harmonious with one another so that they can become more beautiful together than they are apart. That was the driving force behind Harmony Of Difference. 

Is there significance behind the song titles? 

The Six-Part Truth was the first title I came up with [for the album]. The overarching benefit you get from experiencing different cultures and travelling is the understanding of the different ways that people live. You see how different one person sees things from someone else, and you start to see similarities amongst the differences. [You start] to understand truth, the real truth about the world. The other songs are that journey to truth [the title of the sixth song].

Desire is the first stage of starting the journey. You have to want truth. You have to want enlightenment to ever get it. Humility is the next stage. You have to know that you don’t know, and accept that you don’t know, in order to start the journey. Knowledge is about bringing in information and learning what’s going on. Perspective is basically the wisdom to understand that the knowledge you have is still relative to your position in the world, and that knowledge is not absolute. And as you understand more perspectives, that knowledge becomes more valuable. As you come to understand what that truth is, have the integrity to accept it regardless of whether it’s what you wanted it to be or not. 

Do you feel like your audience is feeling these ideas?

Yes. Definitely. Music is an amazing tool for creating empathy. It’s almost like the last stance in our unity. It connects people.

You’re known as a member of the Brainfeeder crew, alongside Flying Lotus and Thundercat. Who do you want to work with next?

I learned a lot playing with Raphael Saadiq. Lauryn Hill. Snoop. Stanley Clarke and George Duke. Chaka Khan. We were all working and we grew a lot during that time.

For most of my life I’ve worked with amazing artists, so I’m actually doing what I want to do right now, which is working with the musicians I grew up with. Making records with Miles Mosley, Brandon Coleman, Cameron Graves and Thundercat. 

Jazz seems like a hard genre to introduce to wider audiences, but people have really embraced your crew in the last few years.

The world turns. Sometimes you have to wait for the world to want you. 

We were talented and I think there was always a place for us in music. There just wasn’t necessarily that door open for us to share our music. Brainfeeder and Lotus unlocked those doors, and then Kendrick [Lamar] came and kicked it open.

music@nowtoronto.com | @chakavgrier

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