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Review: Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – Centennial Trilogy

Over the course of the year Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah released three short albums he called the “Centennial Trilogy”, apparently in honor of the first recorded jazz song. It’s a little hard to see the inspiration of the Original Dixeland Jazz Band’s “Livery Stable Blues” in the results – though a few of the song titles do reference Christian’s native New Orleans – but the Centennial Trilogy does pay some homage to the past even as it remains firmly forward looking. In this way, the new trilogy follows the path Christian’s previous release Stretch Music, which sought inspiration from all corners creating an excellent mash of electrified jazz, rock and hip hop groove. It seemed best to think about the albums as a collective unit rather than as they came. Taken together they suggest a great artist at work, though the internal results are inconsistent.

Ruler Rebel:

The first installment in the trilogy felt like something of a let down, immediately recognizable as the follow up to Stretch Music, but far less powerful as a package. Chalk it up to sound production, particularly in the drums, which on previous albums had been handled by the supremely capable Jamire Williams who elevated the funk groove to the sublime, but is here mostly handled by tactless drum machines. “New Orleanian Love Song” is a breath of fresh air, bringing in live percussion with an African drum circle type sound, though the goodwill is largely squandered by the “remix” that immediately follows it on the album.

While Stretch Music was uplifted with some brilliant sideman turns and Christian’s generally democratic attitude to band-leading, Christian takes a star turn on Ruler Rebel and has largely gotten rid of the soloists. Elena Pinderhughes returns for all of two tracks and Braxton Cook not at all and while Christian’s trumpet is as elegant and plaintive as ever, the album wants a little for variety. Pinderhughes’ solo on “Encryption” is a thing of beauty, over far to soon. Glimpses like that show the potential we’ve all come to expect of Christian, but then the album, over after a scant 36 minutes, can’t fit too many of them in. Ruler Rebel recalls the old joke about the elderly Jewish women at a Catskills resort: one says to the other, “the food at this place is really terrible.” and the other responds, “I know and such small portions!” Two Stars

Diaspora:

Installment two is something of a step in the right direction. He still needs to throw the drum machine out, but at least he’s got some compelling melodies and has given us a nearly full length album. The other horns are more prominently featured as well, which is refreshing. Listening to Christian and Braxton Cook circle around each other on “Idk” reminds us what it’s all about, and Elena returns to deliver a powerful, balladic statement on “Completely”. In a way Braxton and Elena take the album over, though they still need to fight with the production to get themselves heard at times. Three Stars

The Emancipation Procrastination:

Christian caps off the Centennial trilogy with the strongest of the lot. The drums are finally better, the electronic drums somehow sound more organic as if they were controlled by an actual, human drummer rather than a Roomba, and a couple of the album’s most compelling tracks have real live drummers in studio. It’s also the first of the trilogy to deliver any real room for the band to stretch out; not only does the album finally hit the 60-minute mark, the final two tracks are actually exercises in long form exploration, clocking in around 10 minutes each. Never mind that Christian doesn’t actually play on the penultimate “Cages”, that’s always been part of the appeal, the way he’s willing to compose and then step out of the way to let the band really work. Braxton Cook and guest tenor saxophonist Stephen Gladney go at it in Christian’s absence and the results speak for themselves. When Christian comes back in towards the end of the album closer “New Heroes” all passionate and overblown the result is something as anthemic as anything he’s done. Four Stars

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