A Jazz History of the Future

Trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah's fusion 3.0 — or maybe 4.0


Musicians have been at odds with the word jazz for decades. Rahsaan Roland Kirk referred to it as “black classical music”; the Art Ensemble of Chicago defined their work as “great black music: ancient to the future.” Many younger players simply call it “improvised music.”

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, a thirty-four-year-old trumpeter out of New Orleans, prefers “stretch music.” That was the name of his 2015 album, an electrifying collection that underpinned expansive compositions with drum’n’bass, minimalist repetition, metallic funk, and more. Think of it as a kind of fusion 3.0, or maybe 4.0, a genre-free genre.

Scott has been stretching out into indie rock, hip-hop, and trap for a while now. He was playing and touring with his uncle Donald Harrison Jr., the noted saxophonist, at age fourteen and recorded his first album before he turned twenty. But nothing he’s done has been quite as ambitious as his Centennial Trilogy, a tip-of-the-pork-pie-hat to the hundred-year anniversary of the first jazz recordings that looks forward rather than back. Ruler Rebel, a rhythmically stirring effort, came out on March 31 (Scott’s birthday); the second, more pop-inflected Diaspora, is out this week; the concluding release, The Emancipation Procrastination, is set for September.

“[‘Jazz’] is not the word I use to exclusively describe what we do,” Scott said by phone from Los Angeles, where he was finishing the third album and taping an appearance (his fifth) on the Tavis Smiley Show. “What we’re mixing comes from a wide array of musical cultures.” And besides, he says, “if it was just a monolith and everyone had the same perspective, that would be fucking boring.”

Scott spent ten years in New York, but he’s lived in L.A. before — he concentrated on film scoring at the Berklee College of Music and has done some movie work (including a tune in Jonathan Demme’s Ricki and the Flash and providing the ghost-trumpet for Mickey Rourke in Passion Play). He plans to spend more time there now that his twin brother, Kiel, “the hardest working person I know,” is directing his first feature after helming some shorts, which Scott scored as well. But New Orleans, which he calls his “sanctuary,” is still home, and always will be. He grew up in the Upper Ninth Ward, with black Indian roots, and remains active in an art nonprofit that his family has run for decades. His mom — whom he credits with his keen fashion sense (these days, his flash includes Dior gold mirrored sunglasses that play nicely with his bold African and Asian rings, bracelets, and necklaces) — runs his business affairs, “’cause I can trust her!”

The trumpet and cornet players from his hometown are legion — Buddy Bolden, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Red Allen, Louis Prima, Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Kermit Ruffins, Nicholas Payton — but Scott wasn’t allowed to listen to them, at least the ones who were still living. Harrison, serving as a mentor, wouldn’t allow it. “He would always say, ‘If you sound like them, what’s the point?’” Scott says.

Instead, Scott recalls another trumpet immortal from farther up the Mississippi: Miles Davis, specifically the electric Miles of mid-to-late 1980s. Enough so that Marcus Miller — who played with Davis during that period — featured Scott on 2011’s Tutu Revisited. “He was together and much more sure of who he was, even outside of music, than most of the young musicians I’ve come across,” Miller told me. “Christian Scott is not afraid to embrace what’s going on now, and this is what I liked about him.”

Diaspora refers to Scott’s sincere, ongoing concern about us, all of us — the world diaspora — coming together rather than lunging at one another’s throats. “We’ve spent a long time focusing on the differences between seemingly disparate cultures,” Scott says. “And I believe it’s high time that we focus on the sameness.”

Musically, that means pulling in diverse sounds: trap again; Scandinavian pop (he’s an admirer of Lyyke Li); a whiff of traditional Japanese music and of French impressionists, long favored by jazz musicians; and rhythms from Mali, Senegal, and the Gambia. Flutist Elena Pinderhughes, the second coming of Bobbi Humphrey, weaves dreamlike lines throughout, while “New Jack Bounce” evokes “Apache,” a breakbeat staple in early hip-hop. “IDK” and “Completely” add quiet storm vibes. In lesser hands, this might sound merely atmospheric; in Scott’s, it’s creatively alive.

“He’s always had a very clear idea as to what he wanted his music to sound like,” said guitarist Matthew Stevens, who’s played with Scott for more than ten years, in an email. “His music has retained a very identifiable approach and aesthetic while interacting with different influences.”

As on Ruler Rebel, Scott augments the new album with his own post-production work on Logic Pro. In addition to his horns, he utilizes SPD-SX pads, as do his percussionists Corey Fonville and Joe Dyson Jr., and to sketch the “sonic architecture.” He uses loops and samples (including some from his past songs), and overdubs his own trumpet playing — often. “It’s like a hip-hop producer’s acumen, Kanye West–ian style,” Scott says.

A note about Scott’s horns: There are four of them, each providing slightly different sonic shadings. Designed by Scott and his brother — and built by Miel Adams, “the greatest trumpet maker on the planet,” in Holland — they are objects of beauty, full of sculptural daring and whimsy. Instead of dazzling solos, Scott uses them to subtly enhance the complex environments he creates, whether he plays open or with the mute, which is often on Diaspora.

“You’ve got trumpet players now who can play all over horn, high range, lots of notes,” Miller says. “Christian can do that, but he chooses his notes more carefully. He doesn’t waste notes. He plays only what he thinks is necessary to get the emotion across.”

The last piece on Diaspora, “The Walk,” a vocal featuring Sarah Elizabeth Charles accompanied by a hypnotic piano motif, ends quietly, with just the sound of Scott’s breathy horn, as if he’s whispering a secret. Which is not to suggest that Scott is running out of steam. On the contrary: He has lots more to say.