When Christian Scott took the stage of the Jazz Tent during the 2006 Jazz Fest, the short trumpeter in the trim afro was wearing a white shirt and jacket, like so many young jazz musicians. His jacket, however, was a blinding, shimmering gold, more suitable for Little Richard than Wynton Marsalis. It was the kind
of rock ‘n’ roll twist on a jazz cliche that Scott brought to his music again and again.
He began the set by leading his quintet through the title track from his then recently released debut album Rewind That. It began with a rock ‘n’ roll guitar riff from Matt Stevens, and the rhythm section quickly fell into the jittery groove. But Scott played long, languorous trumpet lines whose Miles Davis- like impressionism created a dramatic tension with the initial attack_ Soon keyboardist Aaron Parks was slipping new harmonies within the cracks between the guitar’s push and the trumpet’s pull, while bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Kendrick Scott reshaped the beat into an elastic funk groove.
It was a remarkable performance for several reasons. Though it borrowed musical language from rock, funk and hip-hop, the piece never lapsed into the simplicity of instrumental R&B, jam-band noodling or smooth jazz. There were too many variables aligning or colliding at all times, yet the tune never felt cluttered. Though it was obvious that they could play a lot of show-off notes if they so desired, these were the rare young musicians who played with such restraint that it was easy to follow the interactions. This was the jazz tune that proved you could improvise collectively atop the funk ‘n’ roll rhythms of the Neville Brothers as productively as atop the classic swing of Duke Ellington.
Later in the set, Scott told the crowd, “A prominent musician once told me my music wasn’t swinging, and the paramount condition of jazz is swing. This musician didn’t know I was from New Orleans. He didn’t know that I went to NOCCA and Berklee. He didn’t know that I was well schooled in jazz and that I knew the first jazz records came out of New Orleans in 1917 when there was no swing because swing was invented in Chicago and Kansas City in the ’30s. So don’t tell me that jazz has to swing.”
He delivered this mini-sermon with the kind of defiant attitude and chuckling confidence that informs his music and his conversation. More than a year later, Scott, now 24, betrays the same mindset. His debut album was nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album, and he is alternately funny, combative, engaging and brimming with confidence when talking about his second album. The confidence is well earned for his new disc, Anthem (Concord), builds on the breakthrough of the first to prove just how exciting jazz can be when it turns to the musical ingredients of the post-swing era. It’s a quality that Prince himself recognized when he made room on his new album for Scott.
“If someone says jazz has to be played with swing,” Scott complains, “it’s like saying jazz has to be played with a trumpet. It’s ridiculous. Jazz does have a history, but it doesn’t have to be synonymous with swing because jazz existed before swing was invented. You’re talking to a trumpet player that was born into a New Orleans jazz family, so I can safely say I know a little bit about what is jazz and what isn’t, what it can include and what it can’t.
“That swing rhythm is perfectly designed to break things up, to act as a catalyst for musical ideas, but each type of music has its positives and negatives in improvising. The positive thing about funk or hip-hop isthat when a backbeat isthat solid, it becomes easier to superimpose different rhythmic concepts over it. You can put almost anything against that beat because you don’t have to worry about the pulse getting lost. Matt and I also like sounds- different textures, juxtaposing textures-because that breaks things up too.”
The key to jazz is its ability to “break things up,” as Scott puts it-upending assumptions by providing an unexpected harmonic shift, rhythmic detour, melodic digression or textural transformation. It’s the “sound of surprise,” as critic Whitney Balliett once put it. And such astonishment can occur whether the starting point is swing, ragtime, rock, funk or hip-hop.
The new album’s “Dialect,” for example, begins like a Radiohead song, with stabbing piano chords and bursts of guitar noise. The horns of Scott, tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III and alto saxophonist Louis Fouche divert the tune from that path, however, with a spare but lyrical melodic theme. The piece takes another unmarked left turn with Stevens’ twisting, prodding guitar solo, then another with Scott’s effects-echoed trumpet solo. By the end of the tune, the horns’ sweet harmonies are contrasted against the grinding, churning bottom, with each side leaping out suddenly and then falling back for cover. With the surprises going off one by one like a string of firecrackers, the piece couldn’t be anything but jazz.
“The music I write is what I hear,” he maintains, “and I hear that way because I grew up on the music of my city and my generation. When I was in college, I played in R&B, hip-hop, rock, Latin bands, everything. Recently I’ve been listening to rock by Radiohead, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Beatles, AC/DC and Jimi Hendrix, and hip-hop from Eric B. & Rakim to Jay Z. You absorb that vocabulary, and you want to use it. If you don’t like the way I use it, just turn it off. I didn’t force my way into your house and make you listen to it. If you don’t like it, take it back to the store or give it to a friend. You want me to apologize for expressing myself that way?”
The word “anthem” usually implies an uplifting, celebratory tune, but the compositions on Scott’s new Anthem album are full of dark, troubling hints of pain, sorrow and anger. The title track is presented twice-once in an “antediluvian” or pre-flood version and again in a “postdiluvial adaptation” featuring guest rapper Brother Jof the X-Clan. When he introduced the tune this past March during the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Scott articulated his lean, forlorn trumpet phrases against a rumbling backdrop, as if mourning a loved one lost to the roiling waves.
Wearing a natty gray blazer over an untucked shirt at the Texas show, Scott dedicated the next number, “The 9,” to the Ninth Ward, “where I was born and raised.” This was a more hopeful number, with the street-parade rhythms setting up a tricky horn melody. But Scott’s own solo had a melancholy undercurrent as if unsure that the revival of his neighborhood would be easy-or even certain. On the album, titles such as “Litany Against Fear,” “Void,” “Cease Fire” and “Katrina’s Eyes” hint at the inspiration for these turbulent, unlikely anthems.
“Anthems are usually celebratory songs that deal with patriotism,” he says, “but the anthems I tried to construct are more brooding, which is the way I feel every day. They’re anthems for change, so we can get to a place where we can have a song that’s celebratory again. These are dark songs because these are dark days-not just in New Orleans but across the globe.
“You have a war going on in Iraq, people getting killed in Darfur and no one’s doing anything about it. Why aren’t there regiments of military in Darfur, protecting people who are being killed just for who there are? You’re going to let them die because there are no resources there? If there were natural resources in New Orleans, they’d have been there in two days. I may seem a little bit jaded but that shit angers me.”
The anger burns slow but sure on the opening tracks, “Litany Against Fear” and “Void.” Against a backdrop that often seems ready to slip into chaos but never quite does, Scott plays solos that are shadowy in timbre and dense in tone. They’re played not on the trumpet but on its older, neglected cousin, the cornet.
“I really love the cornet,” Scott says. “It’s tighter than the trumpet, so it takes more work; the piping is smaller, so there’s more back pressure. As a result, it has a darker, more intense sound that resonates very well. It doesn’t get played very much, maybe because it’s not cool looking. ”
King Oliver and Louis Armstrong both played cornet, and for all his modernism, Scott is strongly connected to the traditions of New Orleans jazz. He and his twin brother Kiel (saluted in the tune “Kiel” on the debut album) were born March 31, 1983 to a mother who was a classical clarinetist and a father who was a visual artist. They lived in an Upper Ninth Ward house where” no one ever turned the music off,” whether it was Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts” or Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” And when Mardi Gras rolled around, he masked with the Indians.
“As soon I could walk, I was an Indian,” he remembers. “I was born into a tribe, the Guardians of the Flame. My grandfather, Donald Harrison, Sr., started that tribe; he was the only person to be the Big Chief of four different tribes. From four to 17 I masked with them, but when I was 18, my Uncle Donald started a gang called Congo Nation, and I became his Spy Boy.
“I hear those rhythms all the time. Before you can play drums in my band, you have to go listen to Indian rhythms. Because how you can help me get where I’m going if you don’t know where I’ve been? Some historians say those Indian rhythms are the closest thing we have to the rhythms played in Congo Square in the 17th and 18th Century. They know the Bamboula rhythm was played there and that’s a main part of the Indian music.”
“Uncle Donald” is Donald Harrison, the saxophonist who replaced Branford Marsalis in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. When Harrison and trumpeter Terence Blanchard left the Messengers together, they launched their own combo as co-leaders before parting to pursue solo careers. Scott’s childhood dream was to play with his uncle, and he knew he had a better chance if he played trumpet rather than a reed, even though his family had always been woodwind people.
He got his first horn at 11, knew he was going to be a professional musician at 13 and played in his uncle’s band at a jazz festival in Portugal at 14. After he graduated from NOCCA, he went to the Berklee School of Music in Boston, where he was determined to find a sound on the trumpet that would counteract all the comparisons to Blanchard, Wynton Marsalis and Miles Davis.
“I tried to cultivate a sound that sounded more like a human voice to me,” he says, “warmer, more textured. I started out emulating my mother’s voice because it was so soothing. It came from putting warmer air rather than colder air into the horn. If you force the air out of yourself quickly it’s cooler, but if you let it stay in your diaphragm a little longer it comes out slower and warmer. It took me two years to develop it.”
While he was still at Berklee, Scott appeared on his uncle’s 2002 album, Real Life Stories. Harrison returned the favor by guesting on his nephew’s debut as a leader, 2006’s Rewind That. But between the composing and the release of Rewind That and Harrison’s The Survivor (which also features Scott) came the event that changed New Orleans forever.
“I was in New York when Katrina came and the levees broke,” Scott says. “The rest of my family was there when it happened, and we got 10 feet of water in the house. I couldn’t get in contact with them, so the only information I could get was from TV. It was hard, because you wanted to turn it off, but you couldn’t. Maybe three or four days out I got a phone call when my grandmother finally got cell service. They had gotten to their cars and driven to Houston. No one knew where my Uncle Donald was. It turned out he was at one of the big hotels till they broke away and got to Baton Rouge.”
The trauma inevitably flavored the “anthems” that Scott was writing for his second album. On a tune like “Void,” the anger and sadness are inextricably mingled. The reverse delay on the guitar evokes a situation where everything is turned upside down, and the booming bass drum suggests a heartbeat amplified by adrenaline. The trumpet lead sounds like a lament at first and then like a promise to call someone to account.
“Katrina made me mad as hell,” Scott explains. “I wanted to break something. If you or I kidnapped someone and locked them in a closet for four or five days, we’re going to jail. It seemed that was what the government was doing. Are you kidding me? If you don’t have the resources, admit it and get some help.
“Two years later I’m still mad. I have friends from high school who lost their newborn baby. A disaster like that can happen anywhere in the world; there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s the aftermath that pisses me off. It confirmed that we are second-class citizens. There should be consequences when something like that happens, but the government seems to get off.”
He was in a much better mood when he got a call at the beginning of this year that Prince wanted Scott to play on the sessions for his next album, Planet Earth. Out of those sessions came the track “Somewhere Here on Earth,” a slow blues that features Scott’s soothing tone and snaking lines up front. Scott even got a chance to sit in on Prince’s live show at the Rio Hotel in LasVegas. It was a dream come true for a kid who grew up in New Orleans wearing out his cheap cassettes of Prince’s music.
“I’ve played with some heavy cats, including McCoy Tyner and Mos Def.” Scott admits, “but I was nowhere near as nervous as I was with Prince. As soon as you do something with him, it becomes historically significant. Leading up to it I wanted to throw up, but as soon as I took my trumpet out, there was nothing to it because I could feel he appreciated me as a musician.
“It would be safe to say that he influenced me. If you listen to my music, you’ll hear there’s more than one motif going on at a time, just like his music. You’ll hear a lot of those motifs played on guitar and piano, just like his music. He has this subtle thing about the way he sings-he can do things to a note that will freak you out, but he will also be tactful and leave things out-and I try to do that on my trumpet.”
Scott now lives in Jersey City, and in addition to the Prince album, he can also be heard on the forthcoming Randy Jackson album and seen as well as heard in the forthcoming George Clooney movie Leatherheads. But even as his career trajectory rises ever more steeply, his thoughts are never far from New Orleans.
“New Orleans jazz is my foundation,” he insists. “It’s like the first language I was taught. People always compare me to Miles Davis, but if you don’t hear Louis Armstrong in my music you’re not listening. When I’m playing with New Orleans musicians, I don’t have to say anything, because we know the same language. The blues is so deep there that it gives me goose bumps.
“I get back home several times a year. It’s not that much different since Katrina; there just aren’t as many people. People are still violent; police are still beating people up. It’s still a hard place to grow up. But there are also a lot of beautiful people, a lot of beautiful music. There’s always hope. I’ve been lucky enough to be around young people who are doing great things. But it’s baby steps. We have to deal with a level of contempt from older people that you wouldn’t believe. It’s hard when people look at you and say, ‘What do you know? You’re 20 years old””