How Kamasi Washington is Reviving Jazz
    • FRIDAY, AUGUST 11, 2017

    • Posted by: Peter Hammel

    Kamasi Washington recently stated that his new EP Harmony of Difference will be out September 29th. Seeing the headline is both awesome and shocking in that Washington's music kicks butt and that his music is inherently jazz. But how is Kamasi Washington, a jazz artist, snagging headlines across the internet? No other jazz musician has this type of following at the moment, and I'd like to take a deeper look at how Washington's jazz is becoming a household name for all fans of music.

    First of all, jazz exists in its own realm. It descended from blues, initially becoming jazz using the 12 bar blues form that we can all recognize either consciously or subconsciously. But as jazz entered 50s and 60s and artists like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charles Mingus were reinventing the genre, the standard became solidified. Bop refined into hardbop with quick chord changes that required deep focus for quick sonic and rhythmic reflexes. All professional jazzers knew and continue to know the heads (melodies) to a collection of standards and the chord changes underneath. Each player's solos are supremely improvised, an element of the genre that separates itself from most musical types in existence.


    Songs that functioned modally were also in play. Essentially a song that switches between two "modes" that differentiate from each other's tonic center are modal tunes. Miles Davis' "So What" and John Coltrane's "Impressions" are textbook examples of these standards (and even share the same two modes!). When the modes switch, the music unleashes a sort of emotional and bodily satisfaction from the listener.

    Many of Kamasi Washington's pieces feature this type of modal switch, but usually are topped with a variety of chords for flavor. At a bigger picture, Washington combined the chord hopping bop standard with the modal standard, and then plays the living snot out of the result. Check out songs like "Change of the Guard", "Askim", and "The Magnificent 7" from 2015's The Epic. As a listener, you can not only listen but feel when the song changes modes during the head of the tunes but also during the solos, especially when Kamasi Washington climaxes with his signature sax screech. Plus, Kamasi's roster includes some serious shredders such as bassist and jazz revolutionist Miles Mosley. On top of the band's cast and chord movement, studio versions of all Epic tunes include orchestra and chorale backup for drama and emphasis. Coltrane and Davis used modal standards but never in such a dramatic manner. In conclusion, audiences of Kamasi Washington without musical theory knowledge still got tremendously satisfying listening experiences.


    "Truth", Washington's latest single from April stepped away from the modal switch. In fact, only two chords makeup the song's structure and those chords switch every two bars. What bewilders me is Washington's ability to gather an emotional reaction from me as a listener. The composition of the song is quite simple, but Washington's soloing abilities milk all of my attention. He lures listeners with melodic licks and impresses audiences with chromatic phrases. If John Coltrane's upper register timbre could sometimes be described as wincing, Kamasi Washington's tenor is ruthlessly shouting.

    Now that the 36 year old saxophonist has established himself as the potential front of jazz for years to come, I'm eager for where his jazz will venture to. He signed to Flying Lotus's Brainfeeder record label. He was featured on Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly and the latest Run The Jewels album. As a result, I cross my fingers that non-jazz artists and labels utilize other up and coming jazz monsters to grow audience for the genre. Regardless, Kamasi Washington's latest work arrives in late September, and boy, I can't wait.



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