Tuesday saw the release of one of my absolute most anticipated albums so far this year: trumpet player Christian Scott’s new album, Christian aTunde Adjuah. The album seeks to continue the growth and maturity on display in 2010’s spectacular Yesterday You Said Tomorrow. I’ve been listening to Christian for years now and with each album my enthusiasm has grown. His 2006 major label debut, “Rewind That”, presaged great things to come. It bore the marks of a debut effort and lacked a clear sense of purpose but it introduced us to a group of musicians who were clearly ready to push boundaries and work towards something new and unique. 2007’s “Anthem” was were things started to gel, the band clicked and the result was an album that knew what it wanted to do. “Yesterday You Said Tomorrow”, however, blew it away. Only rarely do we get albums that exhibit not only so much musicianship, but such raw, affecting passion. Basically every track on that album grabbed you; you could love it, you could hate it, but you couldn’t ignore it. “Yesterday You Said Tomorrow” quickly became one of my all time favorite albums, on the top 25 list next to the Coltrane and Shorter albums. Christian has adopted a new name, but the music hasn’t lost even one iota of power. “Christian aTunde Adjuah” continues what “Yesterday You Said Tomorrow” left off, but over two discs this time. I suppose that means it may be twice as good.
To celebrate the album’s release, Christian spent some time in the Apple store in Soho, first in conversation with jazz commentator Ashley Kahn and then with a performance, both to be released as a podcast on iTunes for free. It was great to hear Christian talk about his growth as a musician, the development of his sound and this album more specifically, and, as it turns out, he is clearly an intelligent commentator on both music and social issues. The performance was also highly enjoyable; they are an energetic band, doubly engaging seen live.
What I enjoy most about Christian’s music is his utterly uncompromising and unique style and sound. This sound is the product of three major factors, the first an all encompassing attitude towards music creation, the second a truly new approach to the trumpet which lends him an unmistakeable tone and lastly a critical ear for the skillful use of the technology underpinning both live performance and recording. Christian embraces the term “stretch music” to describe his work. To hear him explain it, it isn’t a term that originated with him, rather one that was used to describe him that he decided accept. Stretch music, he says, is an attempt to take influence and incorporate elements from all music into an improvisational framework. I hesitate to try and analyze his albums with this in mind, trying to source his influences or label different elements of each song along genre lines. His work only really sounds like his work. One thing is for certain though: he doesn’t shy away from anything musically. His bandmates, especially longtime collaborators Jamire Williams on drums and Matthew Stevens on guitar, are equally forceful.
I have told friends and offended jazz aficionados in the past that I think most trumpet players sort of sound the same, as if every trumpet player was trying either to sound like a ballad player a la pre-electric Miles, a hard bop force of nature a la Freddy Hubbard or a dry technical whiz lacking in interest or emotion a la Wynton Marsalis. I don’t know if it is a product of the nature of the instrument itself or the way it is taught, but I find trumpet players tend to distinguish themselves through composition and band leading rather than through the sound of their instrument. Christian is a rare exception to this, distinguishing himself just as much with his tone as with the artistic direction of his band. His tone is unmistakeable, particularly his signature ‘whisper tone’ which he puts to good use on ballads. He derived it in part apparently with inspiration from Clifford Brown, yet it is a sound all his own. Helping him attain his unique sounds is an equally unique arsenal of horns designed and made in conjunction with Adams instruments. Two parts of this arsenal were on display Tuesday. His “siren”, a sort of trumpet flugelhorn hybrid he used on the hard pushing numbers.
On ballads he brought out his ‘reverse flugelhorn’. What exactly that means, I can’t say:
I’ve never seen an instrument like it, but for him it works, that’s for certain. Those are only two of his instruments. In the past he has also played a trumpet sized, trombone like instrument.
One of the first things I noticed listening to “Yesterday You Said Tomorrow” was how good the recording sounded. Not just the musicianship on display, but the sound and feel of the recording. Sure enough, it turned out to be engineered by a master, the legendary Rudy Van Gelder, who has engineered for some of the most famous artists and albums since the fifties. Rudy’s work was invaluable; compared to previous outings, the sound of YYST excelled. This time around, Rudy isn’t on board, replaced with a much younger Chris Allen, but Chris clearly knows his stuff since it sounds just as good. Live, Christian also knows how to manipulate the technology surrounding the performance to maximum effect. On some of the more intense songs as he wailed away he would step away from the mic, sometimes nearly turning all the way around so that he was picked up really only by the drum mics. The result was a great effect where in the quality of his tone it was clear how loud and intense he was playing, yet he was much farther back in the mix, one of the softer instruments on stage as far as volume.
Another benefit to seeing Christian perform is getting to hear his commentary. He composes with specific images and messages in mind, often hinted at in the titles of his songs, but it is hard to tell what specifically the song is about without his explanation. Some of his songs are political in nature (the new album has a song dedicated to the so called ‘stand your ground’ laws and another to Tonya McDowell, a homeless single mother arrested for ‘theft’ because she lied about her residency status to send her 5 year old to a better school) others dedicated to his family and community (his two best ballads, in my estimation at least, ‘Isadora’ and ‘Cara’, are named for his fiancee and his mother). Hearing him describe these songs and explain their titles allows for a deeper understanding of the music.
‘Christian aTunde Adjuah’ is one of the best albums of the year so far, and the relatively short 45 minute set Christian played for us down in Soho one of the better shows I’ve seen (and free too). I can only imagine that we will see much more quality music like this going forward.