Creating new jazz, with roots
By Geoffrey Himes
Friday, August 17, 2012
On the cover of Christian Scott’s new album, “Christian aTunde Adjuah,” the jazz trumpeter is dressed in a traditional Mardi Gras Indian costume -- a “new suit,” as it’s called in the African American neighborhoods of New Orleans.
That’s where the 29-year-old grew up, marching since he was 4 with the Guardians of the Flame, the tribe led by his grandfather. On Mardi Gras days, it was Scott’s job as Spy Boy to venture four or five blocks ahead of the tribe’s main contingent to discover the location and intentions of the rival tribes.
“People always refer to ‘talking drums,’ but in New Orleans, the drums really do talk,” Scott said. “The music of the black Indians in New Orleans is the closest relative in American music to West African music.”
“Christian aTunde Adjuah” references the new moniker Scott has adopted. The latter two names are ancient cities found in what is today Ghana; he still uses his old name, but he prefers the new one.
“I wanted to create something that better reflected my identity and my background,” he said. “I don’t know specifically that my family came from Ghana -- they may have come from Senegal or the Congo -- but I sure as hell know that I’m not Scottish.”
With his West African name and Mardi Gras costume greeting listeners, Scott is deliberately creating a context for his music. He’s refuting the notion that jazz has to remain stuck in swing and bop by pointing out that the music was born in the improvised three-against-four rhythms of Mardi Gras Indians and West African kingdoms decades, even centuries, earlier. By linking himself to the distant past, he’s creating opportunities for the future.
Scott takes advantage of those possibilities on songs such as “Spy Boy/Flag Boy.” The tune opens with rumbling, rolling eighth-note beats -- sometimes in duplet time, sometimes in triplet time -- from the remarkable drummer Jamire Williams, whose technique hints at field recordings of village ceremonies and second-line parades. It isn’t traditional swing or modern funk; it’s a river of rhythmic information bolstered and counterpointed by Kris Funn’s bass, Lawrence Fields’s stabbing piano chords and Scott’s long, elegant trumpet lines.
Out of the contrast between the busy bottom and the laconic top comes a tension that evolves into true drama. “When we play this music, it’s about using a dialogue of multiple viewpoints to reach a consensus,” Scott said. “We don’t always agree, but we have to deal with each other, and that creates interesting music . . . There’s no nastiness, just expression.”
The bandleader is not shy about addressing controversial topics. The composition “When Marissa Stands Her Ground” is a reference to Marissa Alexander, an African American woman who fired a gun during a domestic dispute and then tried unsuccessfully to win acquittal with Florida’s “stand your ground” law. Scott, guitarist Matthew Stevens and trombonist Corey King take turns trying to untangle the knotty moral issues given form by Williams’s push-and-pull drumming.
“My opinion on the Marissa Alexander and Trayvon Martin episodes might be different from Matthew’s,” Scott said. “The other guys may have their own perspectives and they should have their say as well. Lawrence may disagree with me, but he’s creating the environment that I have to improvise in. If Matthew comes up with an idea and heads off in a new direction, I’m not going to stop him. I’m going to follow him.”
For this musical debate to work, all the participants have to be flexible enough to shift to new time signatures, new keys and new moods in response to one another. On a piece such as “Fatima Aisha Rokero 400,” the musicians have to shift from agitated, anguished mourning to slow, eerie meditation.
“Whatever the time signature is, the rhythm has to be able to go in any direction at any time,” Scott said. “It’s like life: When you’re walking from point A to point B, your pace is not always the same. You might meet someone, your laces might come untied or you might run to catch up with someone. I want the music to represent the way life really is, not some abstract idea that you always walk one, two, three, four.”