Photos by Delphine Diallo and art direction by Kiel Adrian Scott, courtesy of Christian Scott
For today’s audiences, having a relationship with jazz music can often feel like you’re peering into the past and reading a history book. It’s something I’ve experienced throughout my relationship with the genre: Even if you love jazz, it’s hard to feel that it represents your generation. Christian Scott, however, is a rallying point for young people everywhere. Much like Robert Glasper is the ambassador for hip-hop in jazz, Christian Scott is the ambassador for jazz in any genre that piques his interest.
Scott grew up surrounded by music, as the nephew of tenor saxophonist Big Chief Donald Harrison Jr., and he was performing onstage by the age of 13. Since then, Scott has been tirelessly working to develop a sound that connects and identifies with younger audiences across a variety of cultures, releasing albums at a steady pace for more than a decade. He accomplished that crossover most emphatically on 2012’s critically acclaimed double album Christian aTunde Adjuah, which plays as if Tortoise and Radiohead began listening to hip-hop and spent their musically formative years surrounded by Lousiana’s rich jazz and Black Indian cultures. That blend is no surprise, since the 32-year-old trumpeter has played alongside the likes of Thom Yorke, Prince, and Mos Def/Yasiin Bey among others.
The long-awaited follow-up to Christian aTunde Adjuah is called Stretch Music, and it’s dropping September 16. As the title suggests, it stretches the definition of what many people might consider jazz. The opening track, “Sunrise in Beijing,” which Noisey is excited to premiere below, has Elena Pinderhughes’s flute crooning alongside Scott’s trumpet over a heavy trap-influenced drumbeat. “Fuck yeah it’s jazz,” Scott says of the album. “But it’s also indie rock. It’s also hip-hop.”
I was fortunate enough to meet up with Scott while he was in New York spending time with his twin brother Kiel (protégé to Spike Lee). He was on his way back from playing the Montreal Jazz Festival. It was a surreal experience to have him sitting across from me in a Harlem coffee shop explaining his role in today’s musical landscape as if he were reading a script from my own subconscious: Here was Scott, as he so often does, successfully connecting with someone young over jazz music.
You had a short stint in LA, and there was a song you played at your last gig where you mentioned it.
“West of the West.” It’s weird, though. There’s some facets of [LA] I really love, more than other places, but that specific song was composed about how much I hated some of it. [laughs]. But it is balanced. My experience was really weird. I was in LA for about a year, and that sort of environment—we were living on Sunset Blvd, to put it in context. I grew up in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans and moved to New York and was in Brooklyn and Harlem in NY. So I feel more comfortable navigating the hood because that’s where I grew up.
What’s up with the new album?
Man, so the new record is going to be called Stretch Music. It’s how people have described my music. The last record was like the artistic treat of stretch music. These [songs] are all different ways you can stretch this shit out. As an example, you never heard a drum that sounded like an 808 on our last record. He may have been playing a rhythm from a Rakim and Eric B record, but unless you were tied in as an audiophile you wouldn’t know it. On this record, you’re going to hear 808s, you’re going to hear subs, you’re going to hear oscillating guitars, and you’re going to hear distortion on shit other than guitar. You ask me is stretch music jazz? I say yeah, fuck yeah it’s jazz. But it’s also indie rock. It’s also hip-hop.
What defines stretch music?
Everywhere we went in the world, all these younger kids were saying we created stretch music, and we didn’t know what the fuck they were talking about. [laughs] Before, when people created a sound, that happened in a neighborhood that had a way of playing because that’s how motherfuckers played in their neighborhood. Whereas now, where I’m growing up, where you’re growing up, by the time we were teenagers if you really wanted to have a conversation about music with a kid in Mumbai, you actually had to be in Mumbai to be able to do that. I can type it and look it up, and I have the world that that music existed in is right at my fingertips. These type of things, if I want to mix and match a tune between that and indie rock, right, but what am I going to take from that? I might take samples from hip-hop and the sonic architectural idea from Radiohead, where I’m like, what is this oscillating sound in the background? There are no more lines of just because I grew up in this place, I’m not able to do this.
Most of the musicians you play with are young, do you find your audiences to be younger as well?
A lot of people are completely and utterly disinterested in jazz. The main reason for that is because it’s very hard to get people to invest in something where they don’t see character types that are captivating to them. They don’t hear character types that are captivating to them. Right? Not trying to be an asshole, but you can argue that the guys who were sort of the pillars of this music in the last 30 years are pretty fucking boring people. I’m not trying to be an asshole; I’m just being honest. If they have problems with that they can come and talk to me about it. I’ll look them in the face and say, “You’re boring the shit out of me right now.” [laughs]
It’s very difficult to get a 17-year-old to jump on board when you’re playing some shit from 1945. It doesn’t mean the stuff that happened in 1945 wasn’t the baddest shit that happened in 1945, but what does that have to do with a kid that was born in 1991? My music is about communicating something. I would rather someone not know that I’m a good trumpet player, I would rather you walk out and not even know if I could play. But you might have been going through some shit and I actually captivated you in a way that either got your mind off of it or helped you navigate that. I don’t care if you think I can play the trumpet. I know I’m one of the baddest motherfuckers to play the trumpet. That’s what this music is about. For me, when you say jazz, what’s that about? For me it’s: Every great jazz musician that you see or meet is the baddest motherfucker on the planet, and they’re the best at what they do because they can actually communicate what they fuckin’ feel through a pipe. You know how difficult that is? It’s not just someone technically accurate, but I could break your fucking heart with a pipe.
How do you fall in with Thom Yorke and Atoms for Peace?
They called! I freaked out! But what was cool was when we got there at first rehearsal, Flea can really play the trumpet. This dude is killin! He’s quietly my favorite musician on the planet, you see him and it’s like he’s having such a good time, but that dude’s a fucking genius man! I mean it’s scary how good he is.
I also approach it with the greatest sense of humility because I know I’m around people that put the real work in. None of the people that I’ve mentioned here are a fucking fluke. Thom Yorke is a genius because Thom Yorke works harder than you, dog.
I saw a bunch of people sitting in with you at your last gig. I’ve never been to New Orleans, but is that indicative of that culture?
I haven’t seen that in New York, where everyone just shows up with their horns.
All of the younger musicians know that I fuck with them. Most of these musicians, when they go to hear someone, they say—in terms of their perception—there’s no way they’re gonna let them on the damn stage. There’s no fucking way they can get up there and play with you. Younger musicians know that I’m always at the jam sessions checking out who can really play, who’s around. I’m having conversations with them. I’m asking what they’re working on. What they’re thinking about. Are you saving your money? General shit. I’m really interested in making sure they can survive out here. The most exploitive culture in the music industry is the jazz music industry.
If you want to be a professional musician, get a manager—
But let’s also be clear about something, musicians are undereducated, so they can be a labor class. People don’t want to say that. I don’t give a fuck about saying that because at the end of the day it’s the truth. If you’re mad about it, then be mad at about it. I’m supposed to lie to these kids and let them come out here with their fuckin’ delusional thoughts, delusions of grandeur about what they’re going to be, based on an environment that these kids think they walk into a meeting with a record company exec and they’re on the same level. That’s how these kids think: Just because he’s talking to me everything is cool. This dude’s been negotiating contracts for 47 years! All you do is go to your dorm room and hurt yourself every night. This dude is a fuckin’ shark! You can’t compete with this guy. Walking into it thinking you can’t lose, you’re at a huge disadvantage. And the whole way the situation is set up, it’s like as long as you practice and you can play you know everything you need to know. It’s fucked up.
Is it cynical or is there hope?
Absolutely there’s hope. I genuinely know—not think—it’s going to get better. I fuck with the youth differently than I think a lot of my peers and the older musicians do. Usually you come to my gig and the guest list is not business people or the guy from Amazon. It’s usually these kids. Somebody did it for me—what am I going to close the door? The information was given to me, so now I can give the information to someone else. That’s more why I’m here than to play the trumpet. To pass information on.
Pat Shahabian is a hip young jazz enthusiast who is hip and young. Follow him on Twitter.