Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Delbert Anderson Takes Inspiration from Navajo Culture

The trumpeter combines Indigenous elements with jazz language, and funk

JazzTimes may earn a small commission if you buy something using one of the retail links in our articles. JazzTimes does not accept money for any editorial recommendations. Read more about our policy here. Thanks for supporting JazzTimes.
Delbert Anderson Takes Inspiration from Navajo Culture
Delbert Anderson (photo: Maurice Johnson)

When Delbert Anderson formed a trio with bassist Mike McCluhan and drummer Nicholas Lucero in 2013, the group immediately grappled with its musical direction. Having found no fruit in a brief pursuit of standards, the trumpeter turned instead toward a concept built around cultural identity. “I was doing some research in a library in Aztec, New Mexico, and I found a tape of Navajo spinning songs,” Anderson relates. “I asked my grandparents about them and they explained that they were basically social songs that taught manners and how to treat people, things along those lines.”

Intrigued and inspired, the Delbert Anderson Trio (DAT) would go on to use the melodies of those age-old pieces as a springboard for creation. Bracing lines bridging Indigenous elements, jazz language, and funk would inform the music on that outfit’s debut, 2014’s Manitou; and the addition of hip-hop vocalist Christopher Mike-Bidtah (a.k.a. Def-i), who entered the mix a year later (and added another “D” to the band name), amplified a punchier slant on D’DAT’s eponymous set in 2018. Those two projects, which kicked off a continuing journey, deepened a connection to a heritage both rooted in Anderson’s upbringing and moving beyond its scope.  

Though Anderson was born within the Navajo Nation in Shiprock, New Mexico, his family moved away from the reservation—and certain traditions—when he was only a few months old. Growing up in nearby Farmington, he had a life-changing encounter watching a jazz combo that inspired him to first pick up the trumpet in fourth grade. As a teenager, he branched out into jazz ensemble work, and he received a scholarship to study music performance and education at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales. After his time at ENMU, Anderson returned to Farmington in 2010, eventually connecting with McCluhan and Lucero, and found his way back to an ancestral history that had largely escaped him during his youth.   

“We just want to bring that Native sound back.”

Since the release of D’DAT, in the periods bookending the COVID-19 calamity and during the pandemic’s quieting quarantine, Anderson has developed a slew of spin-off projects that have quickly gained notice and rightly marked him as a community-minded Indigenous individualist. They include a forthcoming concept album, Born in an Odd Time, produced by Grammy winner John Lindemann and featuring South Africa-raised percussionist Dan Chiorboli and Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera; the Franklin Piland-arranged D’DAT Suite, dressing three Anderson originals in symphonic attire; Spirit Coalescent, a multidisciplinary work blending music, painting, dance, poetry, and photography; and Naat’aanii, a stage musical concerned with both modern Western mindsets and Native American mores.

Add to that a steady demand for performances with his trio, increased interest in the quartet (with its current vocalist, James “Just Jamez” Pakootas), educational residencies, teaching commitments at the university level, and propagation of the music he values most through work with the San Juan Jazz Society (which he founded), and it becomes abundantly clear why he’s drawn heavy praise and recognition from near and far. In the past three years alone, Anderson, his wide-ranging activities, and the trio have garnered awards from the Western Arts Alliance, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and Chamber Music America. And all of it, essentially, can be traced back to one single influence: “Those spinning songs really shaped our careers. It’s pretty cool and pretty crazy to think and realize that all of this was based off of that concept, and now it’s just been in every single project we have. We just want to bring that Native sound back, keep bringing that Indigenous side out.”

Dan Bilawsky

Dan Bilawsky has been involved in jazz journalism for 15 years. His work has appeared in JazzTimes, JAZZed, and All About Jazz, among other outlets. In addition, he’s penned liner notes for artists on Red, Capri, HighNote/Savant, Ropeadope, and other respected imprints. A band director with 20 years of teaching experience, he holds degrees in music from Indiana University, the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, and Five Towns College.