Kamasi Washington Follows ‘The Epic’ With a New Work in Whitney Biennial
For two years the tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington has ridden on the strength of “The Epic,” his hit triple album from 2015, playing almost 200 concerts last year and cementing a level of cultural prominence rarely afforded to jazz musicians.
This week he will debut his first new work since the album, at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, which opens on Friday in its first iteration since the museum moved downtown in 2015.
A fifth-floor gallery will feature Mr. Washington’s “Harmony of Difference,” a 37-minute sweep of summit-seeking music with accompanying video from the filmmaker A. G. Rojas.
As he has gained attention, Mr. Washington, 36, has taken up the role of a jazz ambassador. And with “Harmony of Difference,” he adopts a familiar but still relevant argument: Improvised music can represent a metaphor for a more perfect American union. In this case, Mr. Washington set out to use the musical concept of counterpoint (various melodic crosscurrents flowing together) to symbolize a coexistence that is not just peaceful but actively engaged.
“With our political climate right now, there’s just so much focus on the negative aspect of our diversity,” he said last week in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “I thought it was ironic that we look at it as this problem that we have to solve, when it’s really a gift.”
Of “Harmony,” he said: “I didn’t want it to sound chaotic. I wanted to show how you can pull these different musical pieces together in a way that felt harmonious.”
The six-track suite coheres around warm-hued harmonies and rhythms that mix swing, funk and calypso. It’s of a piece with “The Epic,” which Mr. Washington recorded with a large band, a choir and a string section, though here only the final song, over 13 minutes long, features strings and voices.
Through the first five tracks, Mr. Rojas’s video pans patterns painted by Mr. Washington’s sister Amani Washington. At the end of the fifth tune we see a composite canvas, with all five patterns creating an abstract face.
In the gallery, that video will play simultaneously on flat-screen TVs on three walls. When it ends, a projector will illuminate the one bare wall with a different video as the sixth tune begins. Patrons would presumably gather around the single screen to watch the culminating piece together.
The visuals here are mostly portraits of young Angelenos, alone or in small groups, with a cosmic Afro-Futurist production style that reflects elements of Mr. Washington’s aesthetic. Mr. Rojas, who makes music videos often but rarely works with jazz musicians, said he felt a sense of freedom working with Mr. Washington.
He described “a kind of fluid emotion that doesn’t really exist when you’re doing a video for an artist that has lyrics or a certain specific structure.”
This exhibition is Mr. Washington’s entree into a major museum since arriving on the national scene. Successful jazz musicians usually depend on grants and professorships; if they ascend far enough, working in museums is a natural part of the career path. But Mr. Washington has come via a slightly different route.
He grew up in South Central Los Angeles, the son of a jazz musician and the nephew of a dance company director, and he came of age in a small ecosystem of mentorship, learning from elders like Billy Higgins and Gerald Wilson.
Working with fellow young musicians he had known since grade school, such as Ronald Bruner Jr. and Cameron Graves, he has gone on to record and tour with major Los Angeles musicians outside jazz, like Flying Lotus, Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar. He recorded most of “The Epic” in 2011, during a monthlong recording binge with the loose federation of young jazz musicians calling themselves the West Coast Get Down. Since its release, he has toured constantly, playing his rigorous, largely instrumental music at rock clubs more often than jazz venues.
Mr. Washington’s album experienced remarkable success partly thanks to his reputation for working across genres, but also because it responded to a desire for dauntless, farseeing art in the age of Black Lives Matter. “The Epic” loops in elements of 1970s funk and 1980s R&B without abandoning jazz’s guiding ethic — one of earnest and determined humanism.
On that triple album, for all the dozens of musicians, there seems to be another, more ambiguous layer in the recording. It could just be all those instruments resonating with one another, or a result of the microphones that were used, or something more inexplicable. But a humid electricity — some illusory, conductive force — certainly hangs throughout most of the songs. It’s something like the feeling of an orchestra tuning, or the swell of a bass amplifier just before it feeds back.
“When you have a lot of musicians who are connected to each other on a special level, and are really reaching for that, you get a feeling,” Mr. Washington said. “It’s a stirring.”