Trumpeter Christian Scott gives jazz much-needed stretch

Boston Globe, August 9, 2012

NEW YORK — The trumpeter Christian Scott terms “stretch music” the big, open-minded sound that he seeks, for his own band and for jazz in general.

On his brand-new album, “Christian aTunde Adjuah,” Scott stretches more than just rhythmic and harmonic conventions. The album itself is a sprawling double CD, 23 tracks long. Even Scott’s name has grown longer: the New Orleans native is now Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, a “completion,” as he puts it, that honors his ultimate African ancestry.

At 29 and with eight albums as a leader, Scott, who plays Scullers Friday, has not been shy with compositions and ideas. “Christian aTunde Adjuah,” though, presents as a uniquely personal statement — and not just by its length, title, or cover art, which features Scott in the regalia of a Black Indian, the New Orleans ritual tradition in which he grew up.

“I wanted to show people who I am,” Scott said last week. “The music has been at a loss for perspectives and characters for some time.”

It was a little before showtime at his album release event at Ginny’s Supper Club in Harlem, and Scott was in character mode, natty in a black shirt with white dots (from Comme des Garçons, he mentioned) and a razor-sculpted hairstyle.

The downstairs venue, part of Ethiopian-Swedish chef Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster restaurant, was filling with a good-looking crowd: young, hip, vibrant, mostly black, the kind of audience that gives the lie to “jazz is dead” jeremiads.

Scott, who lives close by, is a regular at the spot; one song on the album is called “Red Rooster.” For the performance, though, he zoomed in on what he felt were some of the record’s centerpieces.

They included the elongated, elegiac “Danziger,” which commemorates a lethal police shooting and cover-up in New Orleans days after Hurricane Katrina. It showcased the quintet’s unique texture, in which sumptuous, searching guitar work by Matt Stevens offsets the keening tone Scott achieves on his hybrid horns, one of which is a combination of trumpet, flugelhorn, and cornet.

And on “New New Orleans,” the group’s new drummer, 22-year-old Joe Dyson, threw down a New Orleans bounce groove so vicious that it seemed only the classy surroundings prevented an outbreak of bounce’s butt-in-the-air dancing.

The omnivorous Scott has absorbed widely from hip-hop, European classical music, West African and Native American harmonies, and myriad other sources: Part of “stretch music,” he said, is developing a musical grammar and methods of improvisation that allow all these influences into jazz.

“Jazz is really 20th-century fusion music,” he said. “You take West African harmony and rhythm, mix with European harmony, and boom! All the music that happened in the last 100 years was born out of that. Anyone who thinks something like that isn’t going to happen 100 years later is an idiot. Every form of music that you hear right now is a fusion.”

In New York, where every possible form of jazz experimentation and crossover coexists, Scott’s statement is uncontroversial. But his New Orleans roots and training — he came up playing in the city’s bars, and his uncle is the saxophonist Donald Harrison — make it, in that context, a political intervention.

Scott’s liner essay for the new album addresses his disagreements with the city’s guardians of tradition. His stance puts him at odds with the neoclassical approach of Wynton Marsalis. And he respectfully differs with Nicholas Payton, another New Orleans trumpet master, who rejects the term “jazz” in favor of “Black American Music.”

The cultural climate is one reason Scott lives in New York, despite lacing his music and titles with New Orleans vernacular and themes. Another is basic freedom and safety. “You can’t walk around the Upper Ninth Ward with the same liberalness that you walk around in Harlem,” he said. “Compared to where I grew up, this is utopia.”

Yet Scott, in some fundamental way, doesn’t like comfort. He grew up boxing, and he brings to the stage both the aggression and the underlying melancholy of a prizefight. He struggles, he said, every time the trumpet reaches his lips.

“I hate my instrument,” he said. “I hate the natural sound of the trumpet, but I think I’m naturally set up to be a trumpet player. I know that sounds weird. But pretty much anytime I play a note I’m uncomfortable in a general sense.”

That’s the reason he plays an array of unusual, hybrid horns. But from his odd relationship with his instrument, he gains a sense of creative imbalance that he finds productive — and indeed, tries to stoke in his bands.

“I might start cussing at them on the bandstand, get them to [mess] with each other,” he said. “If a guy’s in his comfort zone, he’s not really telling me what he feels musically about what we’re dealing with.”

To keep himself on his toes, Scott seeks musicians with whom he’s comfortable fighting — and increasingly, younger ones like Dyson, who know his body of work and are ready to do something new.

As a teenager in New Orleans, Scott said, he found that even the younger players were stuck in ancient sounds. They gave him no clear clues about the way forward. Coming into his own prime, he refuses to get caught in the same trap.

“We’re just priming the canvas so the next generation of guys don’t have any complaints,” he said. “Once I had the opportunity to do something, I was going to make sure to do something, so that [guys] coming behind me didn’t have any excuses as to why they couldn’t express themselves.”

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