Certain people expect certain styles of music to obey certain laws, but the rest of us know that it's the anti-laws that keep a musical tradition breathing.
Here's an eternal anti-law of jazz: Anything can be played. In rap music, where alchemical producers transform samples of crickets and gunshots into melody and rhythm, the prevailing anti-law is that anything can be made into music. Techno artists perform similar miracles, arranging their any-sounds on a grid and setting them loose on the nightlife. Anything can be danced to.
But there's a difference between anything and everything, and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah knows all about it. This year, the 34-year-old trumpeter has released an exquisite trilogy of albums — "Ruler Rebel," released in March, "Diaspora" from June and "The Emancipation Procrastination," out this week — where the music feels both coherent and vast. It's jazz, maybe, but it leans toward trap and techno, starting somewhere between Miles Davis éclat circa 1985 and Jon Hassell atmospherics circa 1986, and landing somewhere else. And sure, Adjuah could be warning us about the shape of jazz to come, but does every great jazz recording have to be a lighthouse? For right now, he's right here, getting comfortable in a fog that feels gorgeously anti-lawful.
He also has a thing for brushing words off his shoulders. Adjuah was born and raised in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, and as a teenager, he performed alongside his uncle, saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., before shipping off to Berklee College of Music. Along the way, the word "jazz" gained an unwelcome amount of weight, so now Adjuah calls his stuff "stretch music." He also claims to hate the sound of the trumpet, and refers to his stunningly customized horns as "B-flat instruments." On his album credits, he's the guy responsible for the "sonic architecture." It all seems a little pretentious — until you remember that any artist who ever did anything meaningful was pretentious. (Can we write that in bright lights? Progress requires pretension.)
And if you allow yourself to sink into these recordings, all of Adjuah's collateral talk starts to feel more like artful misdirection than anxious over-promising, anyway. A serialized triple-album probably qualifies as a grand gesture, but this music is made up of elegant micro-gestures, with Adjuah consistently blowing soft, elastic phrases over forward-motion rhythms. His harmonies rarely change altitude, which might thwart our expectations about which muscles a jazz musician is supposed to flex — but hey, that's how rap and techno producers work. By necessity, in fact. When your toolbox contains every sound in the world, moving in a straight line keeps you from going insane.
So instead of getting stuck on Adjuah's tone, listen to how he surrounds it. He has a reliable bassist in Kris Funn, not to mention an entire team of percussionists tapping out codes with a flickering stylishness that makes it difficult to tell the difference between drum and machine.
Adjuah's most sympathetic collaborator is Elena Pinderhughes, a tenacious flutist who stands near the center of the triple-album's two brightest flares. The first comes on "Rebel Ruler" during "Encryption" — over a techno pulse straight out of Detroit, Pinderhughes begins her solo with a fluttering, six-step ascent as if she's stepping off this doomed planet, up into heaven. That's worth a gasp. The second big moment is the sigh evoked during the title track of "Diaspora" where Adjuah and Pinderhughes gently blend their telepathic phrases, letting us know that we're back on Earth. It's a lot like feeling the sun and the breeze on your skin at once.
This is airy music, predominantly made with human breath — and even when Adjuah's electronic textures take on a liquid quality, they sound like they're evaporating. You can hear it best on "The Emancipation Procrastination" during "Videotape," where the faint electric fizz in the background conjures phantom carbonation, as if the music itself were literally effervescing into the air.
Here, and everywhere else, Adjuah is creating an atmosphere — one with its own temperature, its own humidity, its own taste, its own scent. Is this where jazz is going? If you catch yourself thinking too hard about it, the best thing to do is take a deep breath.