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Christian Scott: Breaking Boundaries, Crossing Lines

Frederick Bernas By

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On Record

Scott weaves together threads of thought to construct a strong critique, a net to snare the jazz system, in the same way he creates music. He speaks of being able to freely write notation as if it was text. From the first pulsing guitar riff on "Rewind That," the opening and title track on its namesake album, the atmosphere is enthralling. Throughout the disc, catchy hooks and hypnotic grooves in an R&B or hip-hop vein are developed individually, taken to different levels and mixed around—while elegantly layering up and holding firmly together at the same time. Cutting through it all is the icy, breathy tone of Scott's piercing trumpet. One wants to listen more, rewind and shift the focus of attention.

The release was heralded as a game-changer in critical circles, with Billboard magazine declaring it "arguably the most remarkable premiere the genre has seen in the last decade." Sales were high. An uncharacteristically charismatic debut, Rewind That was a statement of intent—the then 22-year-old Scott had already found a distinctive compositional voice of his own.

It was a notable departure from the quasi-formulaic process expected of freshman jazz players on major labels. Their initiations almost always comprise a fairly predictable standards songbook, with a couple of originals at most. Rewind That was the opposite: the only standard in sight was a jumped-up version of "So What," laid down over a rippling backbeat, with a burning guest solo courtesy of Donald Harrison's snaky alto sax.

"When I signed the record deal, I told them: 'I get to make the music I want to make, and you don't have anything to say about it,'" Scott recollects. "Now, there are pros and cons to that situation, because of course they want some things, and you have to do stuff like paying an extra dollar for a CD—which doesn't bother me because I'm getting to make the music I want to make. But that was the stipulation. I make the music, you put the record out and sell it."

The jazz community saw this move as controversial. "The problem was coming from other musicians. I was getting calls from people I knew, like, 'man, I heard you signed a record deal, you'd need to do a standards album because they put the money on you.' Everyone knows that if you make a standards album with a major label like that, you're going to make a lot of money. But that wasn't important to me, I wanted to make the music I felt was relevant at the time. I would even get into arguments with my uncle about it—he'd be like 'yo, man, you need to do this, we've cleared a path for you and you should take that path.' But I'd rather do whatever I want."

Scott's goal was to find out "if you could make your own record the way you wanted to and win." "You don't have to follow a model," he continues. "People make excuses in those types of situations—they might say 'well, no one's ever done that before...' That sounds like an excuse, and an excuse is just an opportunity in disguise. If no one's done it, then we'll probably succeed, because at least we have one thing on our side: we'll be the first ones to try."

With Rewind That, Scott believes he won—"it changed a lot of people." His next CD, Anthem (Concord, 2007), was eagerly anticipated. Recorded and released in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, to many it seemed a moving tribute to the devastation of New Orleans. Darker, broodingly meditative moods and minor themes almost invited such a conclusion.

Scott, however, is quick to dispel this reading of his work. "My album wasn't a Katrina album. Not at all. I think that's callous, and, to be honest with you, when I found out the record company was sort of using that to market it, I had a huge argument with the product manager—like swearing at each other, like pushing. Because the thing is that I have friends—girls I grew up with, who were raped in the Superdome—and people that were murdered, all types of stuff. I didn't live that experience, and that's part of what we do, too; we try to make the music as sincere as possible.

"I wasn't there when the hurricane happened, I was in Boston—so I'm not going to write a song about the hurricane hitting and 'oh, wow, here's me' because I was fuckin' in Boston! You know what I'm saying? I don't think that's OK because I didn't have the negative aspects of that experience so I don't think that's my right to write about it, even though it's about my hometown. I can write a song about losing my home, because that's an experience I had, but the hurricane hitting and the water and being afraid—I didn't experience any of that. So it would be callous of me to write that a song like that. I don't think it would be fair."

This stance led to disagreement with another high profile figure, friend and fellow trumpet player. "I had an argument with Terence Blanchard about it—he didn't like the fact I said what I said, but that's how I felt." Blanchard's album A Tale Of God's Will (A Requiem For Katrina) (Blue Note, 2007) was released around the same time as Anthem. Featuring a full string orchestra, it represented a personal lament on the disaster and won a Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album.

"It was like, 'OK man, alright, I know you weren't in New Orleans when it happened, you know, you're very well paid, everything is alright, your house didn't get touched by an inch of water—I know it 'cause I know where you live, I've been to your home!' When that album came out, everyone kinda jumped on the bandwagon, and sort of made my album synonymous with it. And that pissed me off! I was very angry. Anthem was actually about socio-political concerns all over the world. What I'd seen is that everywhere I went, people were vying for a voice and they wanted to be heard. I like to talk to people, share stories, sit down and converse—and I realized there's a lot of pain going on and people wanted to get that out, so I wanted to try and make an album full of small anthems that people from different experiences could relate to. It wasn't about a fuckin' hurricane."

A CD/DVD double set, Live at Newport (Concord, 2008), brought more positive reviews and increased media attention—including towards Scott's dress sense. He's been hailed as "jazz's young style god" by JazzTimes magazine. One publicist at a London gig was overheard saying he'd never worked with a jazz musician who had such an eye for style. However, the man himself is rather baffled by such talk, putting the claim down to popular stereotypes. "People were coming to the conclusion that I'm a 'fashion guy,' and it fucked me up because I never think about that shit—like, at all," Scott elucidates.

"On a daily level, the funny thing is that my friends laugh when they come to a concert and say 'you're the same on stage as you are in your daily life.' It doesn't change—I'm still a crazy motherfucker, I dress the same. What I wear to gigs is what you'll see me walking around the hotel in. I don't really think about it much, it's just how I dress. I get a lot of hookups because I have a shopping problem; I get given stuff because they know I'm going to talk about it when people ask me what I wear. But I don't think about it: my shoes are dirty, my pants are probably a little too tight, my socks might be dirty, and this jacket's not ironed. I don't give a fuck. But people see it and they say 'well, I'm used to looking at an African-American guy who's got a T-shirt and a chain on, and this guy dresses more closely to the way a European would dress,' so they automatically say, 'he's more fashionable than the others.' It's true! I can contextualize where people are coming from when they see that but I don't think about it at all."

About Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah
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