Christian Scott: aTunde Adjuah
In 1959, when Whitney Balliett, the New Yorker's jazz critic, published a collection of his columns, he titled the book The Sound of Surprise. The promise of the unexpected, wrote Balliett, was jazz's most precious quality. In a year which went on to include the release of trumpeter Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia), saxophonist John Coltrane's Giant Steps (Atlantic), pianist Dave Brubeck's Time Out (Columbia) and saxophonist Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic), you could say Balliett was stating the obvious.
Five decades on, surprises in jazz are harder to find; great swathes of the music are locked in replication, the endless rehashing of past glories. And five decades after Balliett's book, the DNA of the musicians has changed, too; college courses churn out alumni for whom jazz is more a career than a calling. There is nothing wrong with the preservation of repertory or the acquisition of technical excellence, but without passion, and an engagement with the wider world, no music will prosper.
So thank God for Christian Scott. The New Orleans-raised, Berklee-educated, Manhattan-based trumpeter's fifth album as leader for Concord is an antidote to all that is wrong with jazz today. It is rooted in the tradition but it is also part of the modern world, musically and politically. Like Scott's previous disc, Yesterday You Said Tomorrow (2010), aTunde Adjuah hangs on to what is still relevant in jazz's legacy and mixes it up with a bag of twists: hip hop, rock, ambient, funk, Afrorock and the reassertion of jazz-as-protest. Scott is not the only young musician (he is 28) traveling this road, but the music he is creating may be the most magnetic around. Scott calls it "stretch music." He says he is attempting not to replace jazz conventions, but to create a sound that is "genre blind" in its acculturation of other forms, languages and cultures. With his mostly longstanding quintet (the only new player this time out is pianist Lawrence Fields), whose on-disc mix is built around Scott's Joshua-like trumpet and Jamire Williams' kick-and-snare drum style, Scott is making music that is all about breaking free.
Extra-musically, too, aTunde Adjuah is a manifesto for change. Scroll down the track listing: the titles reference issues such as the rape of 400 African women in the Sudanese town of Rokero by Janjaweed militiamen ("Fatima Aisha Rokero 400"), the killing of an innocent black teenager in Florida earlier this year ("Trayvon"), the demonization of the homeless in the US ("Vs. The Kleptocratic Union: Mrs McDowell's Crime"), the trafficking of women for the sex trade ("Away: Anuradha And The Maiti Nepal"), conflict in the Middle East ("Jihad Joe"), the legacy of slavery in the US ("Dred Scott"), police killings of innocent people in New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina ("Danziger"), and HIV/AIDS ("The Berlin Patient: CCR5").
Scott's music is instrumental rather than vocal, so he addresses these issues not with words, but with attitude and vibe; track titles and liner notes are the only words you get. His message is no less coherent for that, and, while it may not have the narrative literalism of "conscious" rap music, it has the same relevance, accessibility and immediacy. A few of his titles would actually sit comfortably on a rap album: "Jenacide: The Inevitable Rise And Fall Of The Bloodless Revolution," from Yesterday You Said Tomorrow, and "Vs. The Kleptocratic Union: Mrs McDowell's Crime" each read like they might be something by Public Enemy (whose 25th anniversary album, Most Of My Heroes Still Don't Appear On No Stamp, which is also being released in June 2012, includes a track titled "Beyond Trayvon").
Because he is engaged with the wider world, Scott's music has a chance of connecting with a similarly engaged audience, as personified, for instance, by the Occupy movement. It is telling that various jazz musicians who have supported the Occupy Wall Street action in Manhattan have reported that they were not, initially, made to feel welcome by the protestors, who let them know that they regarded the jazz establishment as part of the power structure they were there to oppose.
By contrast, from the opening bars of "Fatima Aisha Rokero 400" through the near two hours of music that follow, there is no doubt where Scott is coming fromand he does not need lyrics to make his point.
Tracks: CD1: Fatima Aisha Rokero 400; New New Orleans (King Adjuah Stomp); Kuro Shinobi (Interlude); Who They Wish I Was; Pyrrhic Victory Of Atunde Adjuah; Spy Boy/Flag Boy; Vs. The Kleptocratic Union (Mrs McDowell's Crime); Kiel; Of Fire (Les Filles De La Nouvelle Orleans); Dred Scott; Danziger. CD2: The Berlin Patient (CCR5); Jihad Joe; Van Gogh (Interlude); Liar Liar; I Do; Alkebu Lan; Bartlett; Trayvon; Cumulonimbus (Interlude); Away (Anuradha And The Maiti Nepal); The Red Rooster; Cara.
Personnel: Christian Scott: trumpet; Matthew Stevens: guitar; Lawrence Fields: piano; Kris Funn: bass; Jamire Williams: drums; Louis Fouche 111: alto saxophone; Kenneth Whalum 111: tenor saxophone; Corey King: trombone.