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Published: 2017/11/21
by Matt Inman

Kamasi Washington Searches for the Harmony of Difference

The EP is split up into the five movements and then comes together with “The Truth.” Each track is a kind of virtue—did you try to match the music to those titles, or did the titles come later?

The idea of using counterpoint to celebrate diversity came first, and the names came second. I thought of the name Harmony of Difference, and then “Truth.” In the back of my brain, I was thinking, “What am I really searching for?” And I feel like what we really gain from learning from other cultures and other languages, accepting people’s different ways of living is a level of truth, or wisdom, or enlightenment. So I came up with “Truth.” Then the other five titles are what I feel are the steps to truth. That first step to gaining truth is “Desire.” You have to want it; you have to be searching for it. You have to desire it. And then the second step is you have to have “Humility.” You have to be able to accept the fact that you don’t have, that you don’t know. Then the third part is “Knowledge.” That’s a big part of it—going out and learning and having experiences, and gaining knowledge. And then the fourth one is “Perspective.” Knowledge can be manipulated, more so than truth or wisdom, and it’s perspective that really gives your knowledge power—understanding how the information that you have pertains to your particular circumstances. And then the fifth part is “Integrity.” In order to have that truth, you have to accept it, regardless of the way you want it to be.

I saw you on Jam Cruise earlier this year, which is such a unique festival experience since most of the artists stick around for the full cruise. I’m curious your thoughts on the collaborative nature of it.

I liked it. It was my first Jam Cruise. I’m always interested in the music—one of my favorite things to do is hear music that I haven’t before. And like, getting to sit in with the Meters…

I was going to ask what that was like. It was pretty incredible to watch. Was that something that had been planned before?

I ran into them when they came on the ship. And they were like, “Man, we’re playing tonight. You wanna come play?” And I was like, “Yeah!” [Laughs]

So did you do some quick preparation, or did you already know the songs?

I knew a lot of their songs already. And so I just came in.

Your music is very expansive and has a lot of different things going on in it—there’s almost a sacred quality to it. When I see you guys play, you’re obviously having a lot of fun. So you take your music seriously, but you still have a lot of fun with it. I think that’s important, especially in playing jazz for today’s audiences.

Well, I love music, so it’s a joyous experience. Even when it gets heavy, it’s still joyous for me. I don’t necessarily associate with stoic-ness or seriousness—I don’t think you have to be stiff or serious. I can’t help it, the music feels good, it sounds good, and it makes me happy [laughs]. I feel like jazz—and music in general—is so interwoven, and I think we sometimes over-exaggerate the reality of genres. The word “jazz” is associated with such a wide range of music. I don’t know that there are very many people that would like everything that’s associated with jazz, or dislike everything that’s associated with it. But most people come to a conclusion in their mind of what they think something is just by the name of it. I think jazz has suffered more from an image problem than a musical problem. I don’t meet too many people that have opened themselves up to jazz that don’t like it. You don’t meet somebody that’s like, “I used to be into jazz when I was a kid, but I don’t like it anymore.” The reality is, if you’re into hip-hop or funk—even R&B or rock-and-roll—in a lot of ways you are into jazz.

In that vein, could you speak to the importance of cross-genre collaborations, like what you did with Kendrick Lamar on To Pimp a Butterfly, in bringing jazz or experimental music to the mainstream?

I look at myself as being more of a musician than necessarily being a jazz musician. I think jazz is my foundation in music. But working with someone like Kendrick—I think it’s great to work with serious musicians, regardless of what the title of their genre is. But I do think that audiences being open to jazz and jazz musicians—being open to other forms of music—is good, overall, for everyone. There’s such a freedom and expressive nature to jazz that if audiences open themselves up to that, it’ll make their musical experience enriched. And it’ll make their lives enriched. For jazz musicians, sometimes we take this stuff so seriously, looking at the music like it has to be some kind of test or something like that, not with the purpose of enriching the soul, but for pleasing the mind. It’s bigger than that. It’s not a competition. It’s not a class. It’s our most sacred form of expression. And it’s our most powerful tool of connection. So being open to other forms of connection, other forms of expression, will only make jazz music better.

You obviously got a lot of notoriety from The Epic and from working with Kendrick. Did you feel any pressure to follow it up with this EP, or the stuff that you’re doing in the future?

It’s more like opportunity. I’m more happy to know that my music has a home, than feeling any pressure. In the end, I can only make the music that comes to me. I’m not really trying to prove anything. I’m not trying to show anything. If it comes to me, I try to develop it the best I can, and then share it. I feel like that’s the best I can do. I could try to make something that I think people want, but it won’t be as good as the music that I actually have.

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