Christian Andre Scott aTunde Adjuah: Scott Free?
The New Orleans trumpeter seeks equilibrium
On the cover of his recently released album, Christian Andre Scott aTunde Adjuah stands in classic Mardi Gras Indian regalia—a beige full-body suit that explodes with feathers, sequins and gems—and regards the horizon with a gaze of steely invitation. It’s clear before you press “play” that Christian aTunde Adjuah, his sixth effort as a leader, intends to feed you strong doses of declarative urgency and historical conviction.
The 29-year-old trumpeter, whom you probably know simply as Christian Scott (he adopted the two Ghanaian appellations last year), prefers to keep his eyes on the future and his fingers rooting through the soil. Most of the musical traditions he taps into originate in West Africa, and come to him through his experiences growing up in New Orleans’ Upper Ninth Ward.
As children, Christian and his identical twin brother, Kiel Scott, lived in a duplex with their mother and maternal grandparents. Their father, a visual artist whose own dad was a jazz drummer, lived nearby. “Our family is full of artists and teachers, which I think we all feel are kind of the same thing,” Kiel tells me.
When Scott and I meet up in Harlem, where he now lives with his fiancée, it’s a few days prior to Christian aTunde Adjuah’s U.S. release on July 31. As usual, his look is doggedly debonair: He’s wearing a gold-plated, oversized necklet, which he picked up in Thailand, over a loose-fitting black T-shirt and fitted jeans. His hair has been shaved into a sort of fade-cum-pompadour, with a laurel pattern etched into the closely trimmed curls on either side of his head.
“I grew up in a house where you’re constantly being nurtured. When I walked in the door, my grandmother or my mother would ask me what happened during the day, and if I mentioned something that sparked an idea in them they would do everything in their power to make sure that I knew as much about that as possible, and that I explored that,” Scott says. “When I was 7 or 8 years old, my grandfather was forcing my brother and me to read Hegel.”
But, as in any effective work of jazz or blues, the bounty was mingled with the bitter. “By the same token, you’d turn around and he’s giving you boxing gloves and showing you how to throw a right-hand lead,” Scott says of his grandfather. “It’s a very historic place, but at the end of the day the New Orleans that I grew up in was really a ruin. It’s post-crack New Orleans. You better believe that affects a city and a community’s culture. You had to fuckin’ fight when I was growing up. If you didn’t, if the guys knew they could punk you ... then they knew: ‘This motherfucker can be broken.’ … I wasn’t about to get caught up in some gang.”
The Mardi Gras Indian tradition provides what Scott calls “the first line of defense for all the oppressed people in New Orleans.” Which would make his family a sort of assembly of commanding officers. Donald Harrison Sr., Scott’s grandfather and the central figure in his household, was the Big Chief, the patriarch, of four different Mardi Gras Indian troops over the course of his life. In 1997, he became the first big chief to receive the Mayor’s Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Arts Council of New Orleans. His son (Scott’s uncle) is the internationally renowned alto saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., who earned acclaim in the 1990s for coining a new subgenre in jazz, nouveau swing. The style subtly inflects the cymbal patterns of classic bop with Mardi Gras Indian rhythms on the bass drum and snare. Today, Harrison splits time between homes in New York and New Orleans, where he is the big chief of a Mardi Gras Indian troop called the Congo Square Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group.
The Mardi Gras Indian subculture dates back to the 19th century. It centers on “masking Indian,” or masquerading in ornate, self-made Native American regalia while performing buoyant, ebullient songs built on West African drum patterns and call-and-response vocals. Mardi Gras Indian troops are generally all African-American, with membership of around a dozen. The custom stems from Louisiana blacks’ deep-rooted affinity for Native American Indians, who often gave them refuge during the days of slavery.
Every year on Mardi Gras Day and St. Joseph’s Day, the various Indian “gangs” wander throughout the city and do musical battle with one another. (For a long time, the confrontations went beyond dancing, singing and modeling costumes, with violence being a frequent blemish on celebrations, but this hasn’t been an issue for decades.) In many neighborhoods, these biannual gatherings are the Super Bowl, the battle of the bands and the city council meeting, all tailored into one event.
From the time they were 5 years old, Christian and Kiel were members of Donald Sr.’s gang, the Guardians of the Flame, and each of the twins held an important position. Kiel served as the flag boy, responsible for hoisting the troop’s banner, and Christian was the spy boy. “The spy boy is the bravest person in the gang, arguably other than the chief, because the spy boy is the person who goes out ahead of the gang and searches for other gangs to confront,” Kiel says. “All of the other members of the gang are together as a group, and they’re moving through the streets masquerading and playing and singing as a group. … The spy boy really had to be the person who, frankly, could handle themselves alone. Christian, as a little kid, had that temperament.”
Scott’s early boldness finds new life today in his music. “It’s very similar to being that spy boy,” Kiel says. “It’s a guy that’s ahead, a guy that’s not seeking comfort in the group. He’s basically dealing with uncharted territory.”
When he was 11, Scott started studying jazz with Donald Jr., who was originally associated with the 1980s’ neo-conservative Young Lions movement but demonstrated a catholic approach in his subsequent solo output, incorporating the influence of hip-hop, funk and especially the music of the Crescent City. In New York, a few years before he started giving lessons to Christian, Donald befriended a young man named Christopher Wallace and helped teach him vocal phrasing; Wallace would later dub himself the Notorious B.I.G. and become one of the most influential MCs in hip-hop history.
After just a few lessons, Donald recognized a wellspring of natural talent in his nephew. So he offered some pointed advice. “One thing I told him was not to listen to any trumpeters from my generation, because I knew that if he did that people would say he was imitating those guys. I knew he had the talent to go further back and put his own ideas together,” Harrison says. “I think I was right, because he just sounds like Christian.”
Over the past few months it’s become especially vogue, in a conveniently hopeless kind of way, for musicians and commentators to insist on abandoning the word “jazz.” There are loads of decent reasons why that idea ought to be entertained. But it seems ironic that almost all of the albums most central to the discussion have indisputably belonged in other categories anyway. Think in particular of the Robert Glasper Experiment’s Black Radio and Nicholas Payton’s Bitches. Both of those records could comfortably be labeled R&B, as could countless other albums recently released by jazz-trained musicians.
The exhilarating thing about Scott at this point in his career is how quickly he slips in and out of musical approaches, and avoids inhabiting any single, predefined idiom. But a newly blazed trail doesn’t always reach a destination, and when Scott is letting an idea drift along without forcing it to take shape, things can sound inert and interminable. When he hits on something that’s original and tautly rendered, though, he often makes bitingly present, self-possessed music.
In 2010, Scott released Yesterday You Said Tomorrow, his fourth album and the first to fully cash in on his potential. It was a bristling, politically attuned record that achieved a humid, three-dimensional sound with help from the legendary producer Rudy Van Gelder. Over the course of its 10 instrumental tunes, Scott spoke to the spectrum of injustices that plague American life, especially for blacks in institutionally abandoned areas: police brutality, mass incarceration and the perpetual calamity of gun violence.
His music has always been assertive, but Christian aTunde Adjuah—featuring the same quintet as on Yesterday, except with a new pianist—moves things up a level. There’s the album cover, with Scott in his ornate Indian attire. Then there are the song titles, which range from the political (“Vs. the Kleptocratic Union [Ms. McDowell’s Crime]” and “Jihad Joe”) to the self-saluting (“Who They Wish I Was” and “New New Orleans [King Adjuah Stomp]”), and sometimes let the two run together (“Pyrrhic Victory of aTunde Adjuah”). Finally, there’s the record’s length. To make a double-album is to set oneself a major trap, and at 23 tracks and almost two hours, the snare here is major.
One of the first things you notice on this record is that drummer Jamire Williams is back to investigating ancient patterns, and he’s doing it with more unswerving conviction than he did on Yesterday. Guitarist Matthew Stevens, always the sidekick to Scott’s lead, continues to offer a heavy dose of nebulous tension. His sound is a speck in the lens, always pulling against the polyrhythmic thrust of Williams’ drumming.
The album insists on buoyant vamps rather than Yesterday’s atmospheric buildups. On “Danziger,” inspired by the New Orleans police’s shooting of six men on the Danziger Bridge after Hurricane Katrina, Scott offers up the most invigorating recorded solo of his career, and ends the song in a frenzied, skittering dissipation. It is chillingly resonant with the piece’s inspiration. It’s no surprise that at over 10 minutes, “Danziger” is both Christian aTunde Adjuah’s longest track and its most affecting. The album would benefit from some deeper-digging treatments of individual tunes, and fewer overall. It lacks Yesterday’s pointedness and discipline.
But it’s hard to separate Scott the imperfect self-editor from Scott the trenchant, thrilling performer. “The thing about Christian is that he feels 100 percent convicted about every single thing that he says. So to some people, that comes off as pushy or forceful or whatever, but number one, he really means it; number two, he’s thought about it a lot and really come to a conclusion; and number three, he’s really, really passionate about it,” says Lawrence Fields, the quintet’s pianist. “He’s not doing it for show and he’s not doing it to try to force an opinion on people or anything. It’s just really, strongly what he believes.”
“One of the things that bothers me about a lot of musicians is that I know that on a daily basis they see a lot of fucked up things going on, and they have feelings about those things,” Scott tells me. “But as opposed to writing about that, you see songs on people’s albums called ‘Red Chair.’ Man, I don’t give a fuck about a red chair. … When people look back 30 years from now and try to figure out what we had to say, or how we felt about anything, they won’t know, because the music is being littered with ‘Red Chair.’ I don’t speak for everybody else, but I’ll be damned if when I’m done in this world nobody knows what I was thinking about.”
Virtually every song Scott writes draws on some tangible, real-world motivation, often a political one. That doesn’t mean he always gives his band the nitty-gritty. “Sometimes, the minute we look at the title, we know what the song’s about,” says Kris Funn, the quintet’s bassist. “Maybe we’re just successful at interpreting his intent most of the time.” But at the recording session for the latest album, when they were playing “Dred Scott”—inspired by the famous slave who sued for his freedom before the Supreme Court and lost, then suffered a grueling death by tuberculosis—something was missing.
“We had recorded the song maybe three or four times. It was an intense tune,” Funn recounts. “He just stopped the whole session and shit got serious. … He pretty much gave us a 10-minute biography of Dred Scott, and said, ‘Now put yourself in those shoes, and put an instrument in your hands. And however that makes you feel, put that in your playing.’”
On album opener “Fatima Aisha Rokero 400,” Scott didn’t need to spell things out in the studio. He’d been telling the story on the road for months, of the 400 women who were raped in the Sudan as part of a government-backed campaign of terror and ethnic cleansing. Scott feels a personal connection to the atrocities; in junior high school, he walked into the bathroom to find three boys raping a girl. He and a classmate were in the middle of intervening, he says, when he found that the girl was one of his best friends.
Playing songs like “Danziger” and “Cease Fire,” which he recorded on 2007’s Anthem, Scott taps the too-familiar feeling of losing loved ones to gun violence. One day when he was about 10 years old, he and his brother were on their way to meet their friend, Byron, at a park. They planned to give him a cassette by the popular hip-hop MC Nas. The sound of shots clattered through the air—someone had sprayed the entire park with bullets. “We get there,” Scott remembers, “and we see everybody laid out, and [Byron] is bleeding and shit. And of course you don’t know what to do; you’re a kid. You’re just sitting there, holding your friend, trying to figure out what to do.” A few years later, Nas would release a song called “I Gave You Power,” imagining himself as a gun that refused to keep shooting (“He pulled the trigger but I held on/It felt wrong”). On Yesterday, Scott performed his own song, “An Unending Repentance,” which imagines the combined remorse that all the guns in the United States would feel, were they made animate.
After that day in the park, “over the course of those next 10 years, pretty much once every two or three months somebody new would die,” Scott says. Byron’s death “affected me greatly, because that was my friend. But they were all my friends. I remember being a little boy, and the old people would say, ‘By the time you’re 18 years old, all your friends are going to be dead or in jail.’ And you think that’s a joke when you’re a kid. You almost get mad at them for saying something dumb like that. When you get to be 14 years old and you see it happening, that affects you.”
Art is not meant to provide an answer, and so neither is the artist. Scott wrote his own liner notes for Christian aTunde Adjuah, but they don’t speak directly to the topics of his tunes. “For me, I’m not saying you need to feel a certain way about any given issue, or saying you need to be on one side or the other of a dynamic,” he tells me. “I’m just saying that people need to discuss it, because we need to figure out how to attack these issues.
Scott dedicates a portion of the liners to discussing a harmonic framework that he had introduced on Yesterday, and that seems to give musical life to his interrogative goals. He calls the idea “forecasting cells,” and he built it a few years ago, after working in the band of modal piano luminary McCoy Tyner. It revolves around using a succession of open-ended chords with perfect fourths at their core, so that each implies both a question and a resolution. By emphasizing a constant flow of modulation, it demands that soloists keep inquiring.
In art and in society, complex truths can’t really be found—not in one fell swoop, for sure—so the best hope is to ask a series of rigorous questions and triangulate a broader conclusion.
On Christian aTunde Adjuah, the forecasting-cells approach is fully fleshed out; on some of the tracks, Stevens and Fields play what is essentially a series of hybridized suspended chords, sending an indeterminate, pregnant angst throughout the album. It’s a harmonic feeling we associate with alternative rock, and Stevens’ guitar helps to support Scott’s claim that Christian aTunde Adjuah isn’t a jazz record. (He prefers to call it “stretch” music.) Forecasting cells can feel invigorating at times, bathetic at others, especially when the melodies are minimized to fit the harmonic paradigm, or the soloists accommodate it by repeating themselves. One song on which it works smartly is “Pyrrhic Victory of aTunde Adjuah,” a terse, rollicking rumination on the trumpeter’s identity.
In taking on two West African names, Scott has embraced an alternative practice that became popular in some African-American artistic circles during the 1960s and ’70s. At that time, groups developed across the country to promote consciousness of African history and life from before the infusion of slave traders from the north. Steven L. Isoardi writes in The Dark Tree: Jazz and the Community Arts in Los Angeles, “Identity as African-derived offered access to a history and its cultural riches that could be tapped and adapted to gain understanding and to forge solutions to contemporary problems.”
Scott has similar feelings. “I accept the fact that ‘Scott’ is a part of my lineage and a part of my history, and I’m not the type of person who has the view that the name is inherently bad, negative or evil just because it comes from someone who owned my family. But at the other end of that, I also recognize that my history goes beyond America,” he says. “I’m not really interested in anyone being able to point at me and say that I’m the descendent of someone [who owned slaves], or of the property of that person. … Because who wants to navigate the world as that, if they’re really thinking about it?”
He has not changed his name legally, and is not insisting that anyone stop referring to him as Scott. The power of inertia works best when commercial interests are involved, and his record was released by the Concord Jazz label as Christian aTunde Adjuah, by Christian Scott. No major album review or article so far has called him anything other than Christian Scott. And in his everyday life, he’s encountered enough resistance from across the ideological and racial spectrum to know he’s forcing people out of their comfort zones. “When I’m doing performances and they jump onstage and say, ‘Welcome, Christian Scott,’ some of it is people forgetting, and some of it is people being uncomfortable with being able to pronounce the name, and some of it is them not caring,” he tells me. Even in the band “they make fun. They’ll mispronounce it because they think it’s funny … and I realize the fun is happening because they’re uncomfortable. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s what everyone does.”
Elsewhere, he says, the resistance goes way past all that. He’s received a smattering of hate mail ever since his music started directly engaging with political issues, around 2007, but the messages have seemed to grow more furious with the name change. “When I see some of the things that people write to me, that stuff lives somewhere I’ve never been,” he says. “I mean really horrible, awful shit.”
But fear at the fringes is always the sibling of substantive social dialogue, which remains his main goal. “At the end of the day, I think we’re all mirrors for each other,” he says. “It just becomes about a choice. Some people look in the mirror, they see something they don’t like, and they immediately make strides to change that. Other people look in the mirror and say, ‘Well, that’s just what that is today.’” He hopes to keep pulling people into that first category, one tune at a time.
Originally published in October 2012