Kamasi Washington Credit: Jamie James Medina

Los Angeles saxophonist and bandleader Kamasi Washington has achieved remarkable heights since dropping his triple CD debut, The Epic (Brainfeeder), in 2015. The lavish, often overstuffed album worked the early 70s spiritual jazz of Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders into ambitious, meticulously crafted new shapes, giving it a crossover appeal it hadn’t enjoyed in decades. Washington, who began paving his way by making cameo appearances on tracks by Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar, recorded the three-hour-long record as part of a month-long, group-funded communal session that according to a New York Times article from 2015 yielded seven albums among ten players. While I salute his drive and the grandiloquent spectacle of his debut, his local premiere at Bottom Lounge in 2015 left me cold; it was an over-the-top, airless onslaught that left no room for breath, let alone contemplation. I’m clearly in the minority, though—his audience is now sizable enough to secure the 2500-capacity Riviera. Earlier this year he dropped Harmony of Difference (Young Turks), which is dramatically scaled down compared to The Epic, both in terms of length (31 minutes) and scale (six tracks, mostly without the strings and chorus of his debut). That’s not to say it is less ambitious; it was written for a multimedia piece celebrating American diversity that debuted at this year’s Whitney Biennial. As he told the New York Times in March, “I thought it was ironic that we look at it as this problem that we have to solve, when it’s really a gift.” The briskly paced recording effectively recycles a number of melodic themes through a prismatic lens, forging a dynamic composite meant to complement the visual element of the Whitney installation. Improvisations arrive in judicious bite-size pieces, enhancing arrangements that deftly recontextualize themes within musical landscapes that shift from soul-jazz to samba. Though the record shows another notable side of the saxophonist and he’s continued to make his mark as a conceptualist, I’m waiting for him to discover a wholly original voice as an instrumentalist.   v