The first time you listen to all of Kamasi Washington’s new EP, “Harmony of Difference,” you might think you’re experiencing deja vu.
The five short pieces (with titles like “Desire,” “Humility” and “Integrity”) that form the bulk of the jazz saxophonist’s latest work are later united, reworked and reprised as one longer piece, “Truth,” to close out the EP.
If you’re not paying attention, when “Truth” kicks in, you may think the EP has started over again. This is by design. “Harmony of Difference” was originally commissioned as an exhibit piece for the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Biennial earlier this year.
“It was meant to be a celebration of diversity,” Washington says.
For the exhibit at the New York City museum, each of the five short songs was paired with videos that panned across paintings by Washington’s sister, Amani, who worked using her brother’s music as inspiration. Visitors entered a darkened room and viewed the videos accompanied by the songs on one of three small panels. At the end, visitors gathered together in front of a large wall to hear “Truth” while watching a short film by A.G. Rojas that showed people from a variety of cultures and backgrounds.
“At the end of it, ‘Truth’ would come on and you’d hear those melodies, all those songs, together and you’d have a collective experience,” Washington says.
That idea is reflected in the music. “When you bring multiple cultures together, there’s a degree of push and pull,” he says. “There’s gonna be some difficulties but the end result is something beautiful, so it’s a metaphor for that same thing with the music. As you put these melodies together there’s some points where there’s a dissonance but it resolves into something beautiful.”
Washington, 36, has arguably become the biggest name in jazz in recent years thanks to collaborations with musicians like Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus and his expansive, exploratory and genre-defying 2015 album “The Epic.” (Washington is now touring playing selections from that album and “Harmony” with an eight-piece backing band; the tour stops in D.C. on Sunday.)
His music is forward-thinking, yet it has shades of what came before: You can hear jazz pioneers Miles Davis and John Coltrane but also Quincy Jones, old Hollywood scores, calypso and R&B.
Part of what makes Washington such a compelling composer is the way he takes his experiences with different collaborators — as wide-ranging as Ryan Adams, Snoop Dogg and Thundercat — and adds each to his musical vocabulary.
“It’s like speaking a different language,” he says. “Every time you learn a new language your understanding of language overall grows, so every time I would learn new music my understanding of music would grow because I was taken to an extreme in a different direction and that was, in effect, carrying over into what I do.”
But in the end, Washington can only be himself.
“Even the greatest musicians, they only represent themselves,” he says. “You represent who you are and what your experiences are and what you have in your heart and it’s the same for me. I represent who I am and what I’ve been through and what I’m bringing to the music.”
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