Christian aTunde Adjuah and the spirit of jazz rebellion
by T. P. Carter
Christian aTunde Adjuah holds his trumpet like a weapon.
Onstage, his stance is one of a warrior’s, preparing for a battle that none of us can see. It was the first thing I noticed during sound check at Ginny’s Supper Club in Harlem, where he was scheduled to perform an hour or so later. I sat aside and prepared my interview, but was watching. And what I saw was a musical warrior. Warrior genius. Genius rebel. Rebel prince. And then I listened to his horn whisper the first few notes of what we’ve come to know as the signature tune of his last album and realized, even a warrior-rebel-prince needs solitude.
I’d first heard Christian about six years ago in my brother’s car, on a burn that he got from one of his friends in DC. My brother’s a jazz head, more of a Jazz Messengers type than myself, who’d long since decided that there wasn’t much new under the sun in millennial jazz, just new forms of interpreting the old. But this “new cat,” he said while popping it into the player, was “edging it.” With subtle elements of cross-genre spread lightly across breaks of hard-nosed straight ahead; and an old guard “whisper” technique that we were learning to respect with each repeated play, we decided Christian Scott was an anomaly. Too new to be old, too old to be new. “The brotha was just ahead, or behind his time…” We spent the remainder of the night discussing which of the two were more plausible. That was 2006’s Rewind That.
Fast Forward to Harlem 2012. I have so many questions for the horn player whom I discovered on a whim. And I’m noticing things. The ready-for-battle position of his feet, how he takes command of his band—the old school way, his hair, which stands more like a warrior’s headdress than a fashion statement and the way he concentrates on each note, as would an archer with a bow, or a sniper with a target. And during the show, as he told stories of police brutality and social injustice in his hometown New Orleans, I realized. This is his fight. It’s elegant. It’s beautiful. It’s what’s left of our legacy’s arsenal.
We’re on 125th and Lennox. After walking talking and laughing for a few blocks we settled on his stoop.
Funny thing is, I was coming to your show before I knew I was interviewing you. A lot of jazz heads are excited about the new album. I listened to the double CD on repeat for two days before this. There’s weight in that title. How’d you choose it?
Christian Scott: Well, the record is called: Christian Scott: Christian aTunde Adjuah. The title represents the completion of my name. I wanted to choose an album title that reflected my actual identity politics, as opposed to something that was assigned to me.
What’s different about this record?
I look at this record as the first real “stretch” music album. Stretch music is like…the new sound in jazz. Guys like me and Robert Glasper have been making this type of music for about ten years. Now, there’s a litany of artists who are following suit.
You say this is the first stretch album? Because Yesterday You Said Tomorrow was…
[laughs] You have good ears. Yesterday…that was sort of like me writing my thesis. This one is the first album that I’d say is fully stretch.
How would you classify stretch? Jazz…jazz electro…
Stretch music is an improvisational form. It’s jazz, but it makes it its business to acculturate all the other musical forms around it, like hip hop, rock, pop….
Let’s talk about that. Lots of times you’ll hear, “That’s not real jazz…” Many jazz listeners don’t remember Miles’ experimentation with electro in the eighties. Even Bird, when he came on the scene with Bebop it was a—
Yeah they don’t remember when Bird was saying, don’t even call what he was doing jazz.
I feel like your last album had more of an…introverted feeling to it. When I listen to …aTunde Ajduah it feels big, it feels grandiose…it has a very cinematic sound.
I think that comes from how we recorded it. When we recorded Yesterday, we worked with Rudy Van Gelder, who’s probably the most prolific recording engineer of the twentieth century. He retired, and then came out of retirement to make …aTunde Adjuah because he felt that the music on it represented a new direction in jazz. We recorded it “live off the floor,” which means you’re recording with the mics, but you don’t have headphones and you can’t edit it. Other than cleaning certain things up to make it sound a certain way, you can’t take notes out. Which is something that happens a lot in jazz nowadays. You can edit a song all the way down to the point where you don’t feel it. I know this is shocking to a lot of people but it’s like—
Which to me doesn’t make any sense.
Ditto. “Spy Boy.” It’s one of my favorite tracks on the new album, and what I love about it—is although it’s melodic it feels like elegant fight music. When the album first dropped, I brought this to the attention of one of my musician friends and he pointed out the obvious. You’re in full Black Indian Spy Boy regalia on the cover of your album. Then I felt like an idiot for not realizing the connection. As many times as I’ve been to New Orleans for Mardi Gras…
Most people go to Mardi Gras to party and drink but they really don’t know the history of the Black Indians of the region. My grandfather was the only man to be chief of four different tribes. On the HBO show Treme, the big chief’s character on the show is based on my grandfather and the tribe on the show is actually named after my grandfather’s tribe.
My grandmother used to tell me, the Black Indians of New Orleans celebrate Mardi Gras in a way in which commercial Mardi Gras goers have found difficult to penetrate. There’s a culture within a culture. Correct me if I’m wrong, there are thirty-eight tribes…
On Mardi Gras Day there’s a march…and when two Black Indian tribes pass one another, there’s a live theater of music, art, culture and also a challenge of one another’s musicianship.
On Mardi Gras Day, there are what we call “war games.” We’re masquerading and paying homage to our ancestry, but we’re also carving out new territory in the neighborhood—hunting down neighborhood gangs or “Krewes.”
I’d love to ask you how Katrina has affected the culture, but that’s another conversation. What particular aspect of the culture inspired the album?
It started from me just reminiscing about my childhood life as a spy boy in my grandfather’s tribe. When I was little I would masquerade as a spy boy and my twin brother as a flag boy. The Spy Boy is the scout. He’s out in front of the tribe, hunting other spy boys, hunting other gangs, in order to send a signal down the line to the flag boy who in turn sends a signal to the chief about which bands to challenge along the way. The flag boy is the diplomat. The spy boy is the rebel.
And that’s you. That’s what’s revealing itself in the music.
CS: What’s interesting about it is a lot of people who know the culture of Black Indians, and my roll in the tribe growing up, compare the way that I move as an artist, to that of a spy boy. As a musician, I like to be out there by myself, ahead of things, scoping things out, seeing if things are safe, so that the guys ten years from now won’t have any excuse not to venture into uncharted territories. It’s like…I’ve tried it, now you can feel safe to go in that direction and build up from there.
Switch gears. Where do you go to listen to jazz?
The Blue Note is a good one if you’re looking for higher-caliber artists. You can see some really great up and coming guys at the Standard, the Zinc Bar…there’s a ton of spots to hear good jazz in New York, but I think the Standard is one of my favorites. And the New Morning in Paris.
I’ve been to the New Morning in Paris.
Live. All the way live.
[A passer by asks Christian about his horn.]
[to the passerby] This is the world’s first Siren. It’s a combination of a tumpet, flugelhorn, and a coronet.
Passerby: Oh that’s crazy. [now he sees me] Oh, I’m sorry.
No problem. Nice meeting you, blood.
So this is your fourth studio album, fifth overall including Live at Newport.
Yeah, but there were albums before the ones on Universal. I had my own record label when I was in college. So this album is really like album number nine.
You have nine albums.
[laughs] It’s a nice little catalogue. I started touring when I was thirteen. The first record I ever recorded I did at nineteen.
When do you know its time to begin a new project? When you feel inspired enough to sit down and write?
It never stops for me. I think a lot of artists write in waves. For me, when I feel something, I write it.
So while you’re rehearsing, while you’re on the road, you have material lined up ready to go by the time you—
Yeah. Because life doesn’t stop. I’m inspired by anything I hear, a conversation an argument, [a police car speeds up the block] even that police siren might be the catalyst for a rhythmic palate. I’m a student of sound. I’d go upstairs and bass line that siren if I had time. A lot of guys think that’s strange, but the process for me doesn’t stop.
One of the things we work on as writers is process. For you, is it all about creating in the moment or do you work on honing your creative process?
When I was at Berklee I had a regimen where I had to write three songs every day. I knew that at some point, if I ever got good enough to lead a band I wouldn’t have time to sit down and write. So I wanted to develop the skill to write music as easily as I’d write… letters. A lot of musicians need a lot to write: a certain type of atmosphere, a certain type of space…it might take them an hour or so to chart. I can chart in seven minutes. There can be kids around me—it doesn’t matter. I taught myself to block that stuff out.
That’s why you can write a complex double album like (snaps) that.
Many say commercial American music is dying. Is jazz having that experience? Rarely do I hear a horn on the radio, or in a car passing by, unless I’m with someone over fifty, or with my brother, who we used to joke about rolling up to the club blasting Art Blakey. Where does jazz fit in the modern paradigm of musicianship?
Jazz had that experience a long time ago. The music’s a hundred years old, but if you look at jazz as it is today, it’s really twentieth century fusion music. You’re mixing West African rhythmic tradition with harmonic and European harmonic tradition. Rock and roll and R&B music grew out of jazz and blues. Jazz created all of these other sounds. So if you’re really looking at jazz of today it’s sort of wrapping up the last hundred years of music and trying to find a new voice, a new conduit to launch another new sound. That’s what I hear when I listen to modern jazz.
I listen to a ton of jazz based electro and even with electronic music—especially with electronic music, artists are pulling from jazz, sampling jazz…jazz was and is still so fertile—it’s just got so many kids.
[laughs] Right. It’s got a lot of kids. I have a lot of conversations with guys about what’s happening with hip hop music and of course I’d never say what an artist should or should not be, but I think that the vast majority of what we’re hearing is designed to keep people listening to what’s being advertised on certain stations so they can sell soap.
I’m being real with you. A lot of what we hear is not reflective of what people are experiencing in the real world and in our neighborhoods. I feel like what’s going to happen in the next fifteen, twenty years is there’s going to be more solidarity in jazz and eventually [snaps] we’ve got another boom.
You can visit bestselling novelist T .P. Carter at www.tpcarterbooks.com or contact Kensington Books for info on her latest novel Lovestoned.
Kwesi Abbensetts is a Brooklyn-based photographer known for capturing “Iconic portraiture of the modern diaspora.” You can visit him at www.kwesiabbensetts.4ormat.com