October 2007

Christian Scott: Brave New World

“We’re trying to bring the music to the masses,” says trumpeter Christian Scott, seated in a quiet Greenwich Village café, wearing a Lakers jersey and radiating positive energy. “All the guys in the band had a concept of my music and my band being the kind of group that could cross a lot of boundaries. But it was shocking to see that come to fruition.”

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Kiel Scott

Christian Scott

In 2006, Billboard named Scott one of its “Top Ten to Watch in 2006,” ran his picture on the cover and called his major-label outing, Rewind That, “arguably the most remarkable debut the genre has seen in the last decade.” The disc, a hard-hitting mix of jazz and rock, went on to be nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz album.

Scott, 24, hasn’t shied away from the attention. He has been busy big-time, performing with Mos Def’s Black Radio, recording with Prince and American Idol judge Randy Jackson, and filming an appearance in an upcoming George Clooney movie. And, of course, writing and waxing his new album, Anthem, released by Concord in August.

In person, Scott has the confidence and laid-back humor of someone who has been performing in public nearly his entire life. But he’s found that trying to take jazz in a new direction isn’t always easy. “My experience has been really hard trying to get this music off the ground. Even though we got pretty nice press, we got fought with this music,” says Scott. “I hear ‘this is not jazz’ more often than not. ‘We’re gonna pass ’cause that’s not jazz.’ Venues, promoters, festival people, musicians. You feel like there’s so much that you’ve put into it and someone’s behind the door with their foot against [it], trying to keep it closed. It’s been really hard.”

Ironically, there are few musicians who have a deeper connection to the entire jazz tradition than Scott, who didn’t just study jazz at Berklee but also grew up with it in New Orleans. Scott is the nephew of Donald Harrison, Jr., with whom he started playing professionally when he was 16, and grandson of the late Donald Harrison, Sr., a singer and Big Chief of four Mardi Gras Indian tribes, with which Scott became involved as a “spy boy” when he was four. “I always think of New Orleans musicians like Jedi. There’s always these master-apprentice relationships,” he says. “One of the reasons I think that players that come out of there are different is because it’s very steeped in the tradition. So the players from New Orleans typically get it from the beginning.”

But Scott has always been open-minded. “One of the reasons I went to Berklee was because I knew that I could look around and there would be a kid with a Mohawk into punk or a kid that is into hip-hop,” he says. “I don’t have those self-segregating boundaries that people set up. I listen to all kinds of stuff.”

So Scott isn’t changing direction. Despite the resistance of jazz conservatives, on his follow-up release he continues to extend his musical vision, bringing in more influences and, above all, avoiding what he describes as “music for musicians.”

“The aim was not to make the baddest record on earth in terms of killing solos,” he says. “The value is not in my prowess. I wanted to make people happy through the music, and I think that this album can do that. I think it can make people feel.”

Anthem is a heady musical stew, with Matt Stevens’ edgy rock guitar, strong hints of hip-hop in the playing of pianist Aaron Parks and drummer Marcus Gilmore, slower tunes that verge on neo-soul, and rapping on one track from Brother J of X-Clan. But it is always Scott’s trumpet that is most impressive: powerful but tender, with an airy sound that he seems pleased to have had compared to pop singer John Mayer’s voice.

The album is, in part, an intense meditation on Hurricane Katrina and the severe challenges of the days that followed when Scott’s uncle was missing, his home destroyed, his entire family relocated, and his world view forever altered. “It’s strange to walk into your house and it’s not your home anymore,” says Scott. “And not just in the tragedy, but in how people see you after that. You feel like you’re being viewed as ‘the other.’ Certain things were exposed, like, ‘Yes, you are a second class citizen.’ That entire experience was hurtful.”

Scott’s family is back in New Orleans, but he and his hometown will never be the same. He now believes that there is a higher purpose in his work.

“I’d like to use this music and my experience as a catalyst for change. Problem solving has always been my nature and I want to help people. If that’s through music, then so be it.”

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