CHRISTIAN SCOTT ATUNDE ADJUAH: FRIDAY, APRIL 22—ZATARAIN’S WWOZ JAZZ TENT, 5:45 P.M.
Stretch Music is both the title of the latest album from Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah and a description of the New Orleans trumpeter’s sound. But it’s not a phrase that Adjuah invented himself.
“Initially ‘stretch music’ was something that younger musicians were saying that we were doing,” Adjuah says. “Every time we went to Europe or Asia, this is what they were calling it. When they kept saying it, we decided we should use it. The more we thought about it on a conceptual level, the more we liked it. We’re trying to create sounds that’s really culture-blind. We’re trying to incorporate sounds from every culture into a collective improvisation situation.”
It’s not that Adjuah’s turning his back on jazz; it’s that he wants that musical tradition to become more elastic, so it can accommodate more influences. Just as a rubber band can expand to enclose more and different paint brushes in a bundle and still be a rubber band when the painting is finished, so can jazz stretch to include musics from every nation and generation and still be jazz when the record is over.
That’s what you hear on the Stretch Music album. You encounter hip-hop beats, Chinese harmonies, West African rhythms, Mardi Gras Indian drumming, European classical motifs, funk grooves, Latin clave and more. But it all comes together within the framework of the traditional jazz combo: trumpet, sax, piano, bass, guitar and drums, all improvising on a theme. The rubber band stretches, but it never breaks.
“I don’t think we’re inventing the wheel,” Adjuah says. “It’s just our time to step up to the plate. Maintaining a level of spontaneity is very important in this music. Musically I’m very easily bored. So I like to find musicians who have very pointed characters in the way they improvise. If you have that, you’ll find yourself in places you didn’t expect to end up.”
Ever since jazz got its start in New Orleans about a hundred years ago, the genre has always taken the popular dance music of the day and has improvised on both the tunes and the rhythms to elevate the material into another realm. So it makes sense that Adjuah’s generation would want to do the same with today’s dance music, whether hip-hop, funk or EDM.
And ever since Dizzy Gillespie began championing Cuban music in the late 1940s, jazz has gobbled up musics from other nations for the same kind of transformation. So it makes just as much sense that younger, more traveled musicians would reach beyond the Western Hemisphere for inspiration.
“I went to the Berklee School of Music,” Adjuah notes, “and what I loved about it was you could be in a class with someone from Japan and someone from Ghana and you were trying to create music together through collective improvisation. From growing up in New Orleans and seeing all the social ills people have had to deal with here, I saw how cultural boundaries resulted in a lot of people being poorly educated so they would be available as a labor class. I was interested in tearing down those boundaries.
“We have a myriad of ways we do this. Like on ‘Sunrise in Beijing,’ I wanted to use that palindromic rhythm that traditional Chinese music uses and mix it with Elvin Jones’ drumming with Coltrane when Trane was blending jazz and Asian music. But when I’m in Beijing or Hong Kong, most of the musicians there are real beatheads; they’re listening to more hip-hop than jazz. So we chopped off one part of an Elvin rhythm and stuck it on the end of another phrase like a hip-hop mix.”
None of these ambitious ideas would matter much if the resulting music weren’t so rewarding. But Adjuah has evolved into a major composer who generates muscular melodies that he develops in unexpected ways. And he executes them with a forceful attack that never turns the flush tone shrill nor the pitch imprecise.
The burly musician is pictured on the album cover holding his newly invented additions to the trumpet family: the reverse flugelhorn (a wide-bore flugelhorn with a stronger upper range), the siren (a flugelhorn bell with trumpet piping), the sirenette (a compact version of the siren) and the tilted-horn trumpet (like Dizzy Gillespie’s iconic instrument but with a lower tilt and shortened piping).
With his drummer Joe Dyson, Adjuah also invented the “Pan-African Drums,” a combination of modern American and ancient African percussion that have been connected to each other so they can be played like a kit. Both Dyson and the band’s second drummer, Corey Fonville, also play the SPD-SX, electronic drum pads that allow a percussionist to sample any sound and then trigger it in real time with conventional drumsticks. Also in the band are alto saxophonist Braxton Cook, trombonist Corey King, guitarist Cliff Hines, keyboardist Lawrence Fields and bassist Kris Funn.
Moreover, the album Stretch Music comes with a subtitle: “Introducing Elena Pinderhughes.” This flutist is only 20 years old, but she had such a signature voice as an improviser that Adjuah wanted to help launch her career, as so many others had helped launch his. After all, his uncle is Donald Harrison Jr., a Mardi Gras Indian chief and a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Adjuah’s teachers at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts included flutist Kent Jordan and trumpeter Clyde Kerr Jr. They had promoted Adjuah when he was starting out, so now he wants to promote Pinderhughes in the same way.
“She was the first person I heard who could get around the flute like Kent did,” Adjuah marvels. “But it’s also the note choices she makes: She’s outrageously fearless. She takes my musicians into territory they would never go otherwise. When I hear her, she pulls emotions out of me I don’t usually feel when I’m playing. When she’s soloing I find myself listening to her instead of leading the band like I’m supposed to.”
Making a guest appearance on the album is Adjuah’s chief collaborator over his career: guitarist Matthew Stevens. “Matthew was in my band for 10 years, and a lot of people pegged him as the side guy,” Adjuah says, “and he was one of the architects of this sound. People talk about me and Robert Glasper, but Matthew redefined the way the guitar sounds in this music. He never got credit for it and that made me feel bad. So when he told me he was ready to move on, I couldn’t have been happier. Matthew and I will play together ’till one of us is no longer here. He’s still one of my best friends.”
In early April, this band reassembled in the state-of-the-art Parlor Recording Studio in New Orleans to record the follow-up to Stretch Music. The new album will emphasize the street and hip-hop elements in Adjuah’s sound even more, but future projects will focus on the rock or Caribbean elements. His longstanding partnership with the Canadian Stevens is symptomatic of Adjuah’s desire to create multi- racial bands playing multi-cultural music.
“I’m looking for a way to challenge and eliminate this poisonous idea of race,” he declares. “We can agree that race may exist as a social construct but not as a genetic fact. We’re all homo sapiens. There is no homo africanus. When you say you can’t mix salsa with impressionist classical music, you’re saying a Cuban can’t mix with a French person. I want to eliminate that idea.
“To me what’s important is building the bridge. Whether the audience is going to walk across that bridge or not is their choice. But it’s the sameness of all these cultures and all these peoples that I’m most interested in highlighting. We’re already well aware of our differences so I’m not worried about highlighting that. At one point we were all one people, and we’ve seen how the history of emphasizing differences has worked out.”