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Logan Richardson: On Afrofuturism and finding Mom

Friedrich Kunzmann By

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To my mind, in the African American experience you have to be Afrofuturistic, simply to survive each day. Your thoughts can’t exist in a now-perspective because the now, as the past, is unsustainable, often unbearable.
—Logan Richardson
As the twenty-first century takes its course, a jazz musician's musical path seems to be becoming less and less linear. Derivatives of genres, shifting technological approaches and possibilities as well as a growing amount of proactivist political and social advocacy are increasingly gaining passage into this century's art form with deep American roots.

In that respect and over twenty years deep into a fruitful career with now five albums as a leader under his belt, Kansas City-native Logan Richardson's music promises to remain ever evolving and constantly changing—or shifting, as his career-turning release Shift (Blue Note, 2016) would have it. The ubiquitous musical expansions and technological inventions have been growing more and more relevant in the alto saxophonist's oeuvre, which, while drifting further away from its jazz foundations, in return is forming a stronger bond with his cultural heritage. With that in mind, Richardson's latest album Afrofuturism (Whirlwind Recordings/Wax Industry, 2020) simply feels like the logical conclusion of the saxophonist's inner musical process, but only represents one step in a long, sometimes difficult, but most of all fascinating journey...

Working in music before, during and after a Pandemic

...A path that also includes work on a sound library for Native Instruments, which is what Richardson is in the middle of when I contacted him for a broad conversation about the saxophonist's new album and everything that's led up to it. "I made a sample pack for Native Instruments about two years ago and then last year, my first move in quarantine was to find some way to be creative. So I just went ahead and recorded a bunch of sounds. I negotiated a great deal with Native Instruments and will be putting out three volumes of the sample pack."

The most tedious part about creating a sample bank doesn't lie in recording the individual sounds but organizing and curating them. Richardson's sounds will include everything from single note articulations to entire motifs at different paces. "The samples are in about six different bpms [beats per minute] and I also diversify them by key. So you'll have a set of major keys, a set of minor keys. I also featured a set with my custom reverb. The particular pack I'm currently assembling is more focused on entire melodic lines for example. I'm thinking this is convenient for a producer, who wants to put a saxophone in their track or someone who needs an impetus to start a song."

This kind of work isn't something Richardson is only doing due to the limiting circumstances of the pandemic but represents an opportunity always available to professional musicians. It's the kind of work he's able to do between recording albums and touring. "I made the first pack between being on the road and a day or two of being at home a couple of years ago. So it's a lot of the same process, no matter what the circumstances are. The social and economic framework around the world, from a musical and performance point of view, has shifted and brought to light the importance of digging deeper inside of the true industry that exists for an artist, which includes a new spectrum of work. It's very wide and very broad and very much doesn't involve anyone ever even having seen you in concert." To Richardson this represents an opportunity on top of doing concerts and making albums, and, as he puts it, represents "the cherry on top of the whip cream."

Jazz in Europe and tracing African heritage through Paris

Much has led up to where the saxophonist is now and what he's doing today. When Shift was released, Richardson still lived in one of Europe's jazz metropoles, Paris, exploring a music scene very different from what he'd come to know in Boston and New York. Recording with the likes of Pat Metheny and Jason Moran was only the tip of the iceberg, during a period of change, transformation and lots of moving around. "Paris gave me a chance to be able to digest everything that I'd learned and lived before and apply it in a different context. Back in Kansas City I'd been working in music since I was sixteen. I was fortunate to grow up in an environment where I was able to play gigs from early on. I graduated when I was 17 and moved to Boston to go to Berklee [College of Music] for about a year and a half. From there I went straight to The New School in New York. So between studying and playing the Kansas City scene— where I was basically treated as if I was a 55-year old man (laughs)—and from playing with the next generation cats like Jaleel Shaw, Walter Smith III, Kendrick Scott, Jason Palmer in Boston to meeting the other half of that scene in New York, I was constantly part of this broad jazz structure. The organizations, the venues, the schools, the people. So when I first moved to Europe, to Galicia, Spain to be exact, that environment changed completely."

Richardson spent eight months in Galicia. What was initially supposed to be a two-month sabbatical, teaching in a conservatory in Pontevedra, turned into an expansive semester of working with the young guard. "Galicia has a really crazy scene with extremely talented young musicians. It's a popping urban hub." And moving to Paris was a continuation of the spirit Richardson found in Spain. Richardson's American mindset fast adapted to the French way of life, which in the context of jazz—among many others—means more spontaneity.

"In Paris you'll just go to the owner of a bar or club and say 'Let's do this' and make a gig happen. We'd even play outside, go to a Park like Parc des Buttes Chaumont and play trio there. Just moving around the city, playing in the street and connecting with the place and people. Of course that wasn't done for money but just for fun. When I arrived in France I was also immediately playing with the more renowned musicians and in the bigger clubs, which helped establishing my profile. Paris was an inspirational place because it was my first extensive European home. It allowed me to examine who I am and where I'm going. But during that process you also start identifying things about yourself, like 'Do I need sun' and yes, sun is very important for me (laughs), so that whole period did have a timer on it (laughs)."

Still, despite the lack of sunshine, the French capital left a deep mark on the saxophonist. "Paris ended up feeling like a right to passage, considering the historical migration of the African lineage in jazz and elsewhere and the way it's been moved, implanted and then replanted itself across the world. In that regard Paris is a very important city. Of course, I wasn't thinking about any of this when I first came there. Initially I just completely fell in love with the city"

An era of Afro-past, Afro-present and: Afrofuture

It's the notion of African heritage that has guided Logan Richardson most, ever since discovering Europe's musical topographies. Which not only becomes apparent in conversation with the saxophonist but is most of all reflected in his music. A deep dive into the Afro-American blues tradition with a contemporary spin to it, 2018's Blues People (Ropeadope Records) turned its predecessors,' in comparison straight ahead notions on the head and gave an unfiltered look at Richardson's inner and most fundamental musical voice. Afrofuturism, his newest and most existentially painted album to date, picks up where the saxophonist's Blues People project left off, but adds an intimate and personal layer to the equation. At the center of it all lies Richardson's examination of his roots, his present self and where he's going. "When I initially came up with this name [Afrofuturism], I knew right away that it described me, yet I was and still am trying to actually figure out how to fill those shoes. To my mind, in the African American experience, you have to be Afrofuturistic, simply to survive each day. Your thoughts can't exist in a now-perspective because the now, as the past, is unsustainable, often unbearable. According to now, I, an African American with long dreads and tattoos on my face walking down the street am obviously considered a drug dealer or a gang banger. And don't let me be walking my Pit Bull either (who's the sweetest dog in the world), because then I'm the worst gangster you've ever seen. Simply to survive this climate, you have to be Afrofuturistic."

Systematic racism remains omnipresent in American society and elsewhere around the world. It guides us like a constant headache and experienced another tragic year in 2020, propelling the Black Lives Matter movement to a new level of urgency and demonstrating the inherent need for universal and radical change. Considering the events of last year, it would have seemed plausible that they had their part in the making of Afrofuturism. "No way! I started recording the album at Make Believe studios in Omaha in July 2019. And it was already done when 2020 went south. For me this shit's been going on for a long time. We were already in there. If you listen to Blues People, we're chanting 'black and brown and yellow is so beautiful.' We were chanting 'Hidden Figures,' celebrating all the great black African American inventors. Inventors going from small common things like peanut butter all the way down to the fact that Beethoven actually wasn't the white man depicted in encyclopedias. Really, he was a little black, too. That was actually this album's working title. 'Beethoven was black.'"

Richardson didn't end up using that title because he felt that with "Black Wallstreet" being the only string arrangement on the album, it didn't sufficiently represent such a title. He plans on using it for another work in the future, as he's currently working on a full symphonic piece, drawing on his admiration for Arnold Schönberg and a variety of other classical composers the saxophonist counts among his influences.

From a musical perspective, Afrofuturism works like a sponge of the Afro-cultural streams, absorbing grooves, feelings, colors and a variety of approaches from all across the African world. "Anything coming down from the African diaspora, imploring something from a technological perspective, whether that be fashion or design and so on is part of it. For me the music on this gets to the point where it's hard to categorize what it is, genre-wise. I remember listening back to the rough mixes and could tell that it had this sound. I knew it was different from Blues People, though it comes from the roots of the freedom that Blues People finally gave me. Obviously, the band still represents on a few tracks of the album, but this is a Logan Richardson album, not a Blues People album. I don't think about this when making the music of course, but I was just able to tell, that this is more me."

Nonetheless, Richardson's ties to his Blues People band remain strong. The band members are close associates and friends of Richardson's and their chemistry is undeniable. "We're constantly playing together. Just yesterday we played outside, my fiancé was listening, and she agrees that, no matter when or where we play, every rehearsal and each gig, my band plays like it's the last time they'll ever play. I never have to say 'give me more.'"

"Considering what we've been doing with Blues People, this was just the next step and a deeper blast into this Afrofuturism project. With the Blues People album I started producing all the tracks myself in Logic, which is the DAW I work with today. It's also with that project that I first started bringing my music to the band orally. No sheet music, nothing. Everything in the studio, by ear. Ever since, that's the only way I teach music anymore. By ear. Accordingly, Afrofuturism was created with the same process. The songs on which my band play I taught them about 20 minutes before tracking them. And you can hear how well that works!"

Though the saxophonist insists he doesn't romanticize the process of examining his Afro-American identity, soul-searching can impossibly remain a superficial process. Richardson's own search always leads back to his mother. "At the core of this album, is the connection with the sound of mother. Which is the first sound I would have ever known. The sound of my mother's voice vibrating from inside her body. That's what has fed me and has influenced me and my actual physical composition more than any master of the music, mentor or any instrument—it's my mom. Her sound, what she says. So for me this definition of self is based on the idea that the African American future is rooted in the past. We have to get back to mother. Our mothers were taken away from us. They're the ones who were raped. Our mothers are the ones, who were put against us to not identify us anymore, because we were not hers anymore, she belonged to someone else. But our mother is ours and we are our mother"

Richardson's mother is an essential part of his Afrofuturistic philosophy and as such, indirectly features on the album, too. A field recording of the saxophonist's grandmother, given to him by his aunt, works as an intro to "Farewell, Goodbye." The recording reveals his grandmother singing the spiritual "My Lord and I," accompanied by the typical rustling and bustling of modest recording quality. While its sound and 25-seconds short runtime standout from everything else on the album, it aligns in its context, nonetheless. As opposed to the typical homogenic collection of tunes, Afrofuturism rather works like a collection of sketches, bound together by an inner process and chronology in which the pieces only make sense when looked at as a whole. To the suggestion, that the album resembles a mixtape, the format often found in hip hop, Richardson's first reaction is one of surprise, followed by complete affirmation. "That's honestly one of the most awesome and descriptive things I've heard said about this album. That nails it. I never thought of this as a mixtape but now that I hear it—yep! This is a mixtape; it just doesn't have mixtape in its title."

Like a mixtape, the music builds on a variety of different concepts, some song-oriented, others texture-focused and a couple of interludes to set the mood and heighten the atmosphere. In that context, jazz merely becomes a proverb and genres are negligible, even if Richardson playfully names one of the songs on the record "Trap," alluding to the genre-defining drum/percussion sound featured throughout the piece. "I don't think of the music on Afrofuturism in terms of genre. It's influenced by sounds of music that I've liked in the past and sounds I enjoy right now, that I'm just trying to bring together. I've also been producing other people's music for years. That's influenced my musical process and influences a lot, too. Naturally, often there isn't even a saxophone in the music I produce, even though it's the instrument I'd identify with first and foremost. So at the beginning of producing contemporary music, I had trouble finding a point of entry. Blues People finally gave me the space to figure things out. On this self-reliant and artistic level, Afrofuturism works as even more of a confidence boost. Recording in this free environment, where I'm pretty much in control of everything—recording, playing and producing—has led to a multitude of new angles to what I can and want to do. It has also made me a lot more productive. This year alone I'm going to release three more albums, a sort of trilogy. Additionally, I'm planning to release the follow up to Blues People at the end of the year."

Remote recording has gained an increasingly important role in the world of jazz music even before the spike of home-recorded albums in the wake of the Corona pandemic. Afrofuturism, too, while born in a studio, ended up being a mostly remotely recorded project. "Igor [Osypov] wasn't there, so in the studio it was just me, Dominique [Sanders] and a couple of others. Igor tracked everything you hear on this album remotely in Berlin. I didn't play any saxophone in the studio at all. So any sax that you hear was overdubbed. But if you listen to 'The Birth of Us' you would have no idea that it was never played live. You'd think there was no way. But there is a way! It just takes a whole other level to get into this whole other space, when you're off in your studio at home, because you have to be able to play something, that you don't even know is about to happen. We have a lot of other music that's just about done and was recorded in the same way. It sounds amazing. So for me there's no excuse not to be putting out albums at the moment, because it's absolutely possible, it just takes an open mind and the will to change your ways"

Afrofuturism represents Richardson's second time recording and mixing an album mostly by himself from his home in Kansas City—his home formerly being the childhood home of saxophone legend Charlie Parker and now serving as headquarters to Richardson's label Wax Industry. In this isolated setting Richardson is best able to expand his mind when recording. "It's way more relaxed. I make music like a child and am just trying around with everything. It's a very fluid process. I recorded the piano part for 'Light' in about two minutes, then I'll just go ahead and record the saxophone over it. I believe you can hear my first take on that track. So all together, songs like that will take me 5-20 minutes to record, that's it. And then I can mix and master, too and have it done when I need it to be, because I'm in charge of it all. I love it. This way I'm able to shape every sound through engineering and editing."

Ultimately, Afrofuturism is the sum of everything Richardson talks about, meaning exactly what it appears to be. Like his speech, Richardson's musical language isn't a metaphorical one, but works as a direct mirror of his thoughts, experiences and feelings. In the same vein, the titles of the songs don't hide their inner meaning either. "'Round Up' is about Round-Up. It's about what happens when you're driving down the street and you have these cops stopping you for no reason, just to pull you over. It's modern-day oppression in the most direct sense of the term. When compared to the past, the suit might be different, so it appears different, but that doesn't mean it's not exactly the same." Richardson continues to dissect the sentiments of his present and what the future should bring, but for now his main messages are those of lament and call for action, for a just future. Within his messages there isn't a trace of aggression or frustration. Instead, he puts all his bets on hope and positivity, which represent the sum of Afrofuturism and provoke the saxophonist's awe-inspiring philosophical eloquence, leaving nothing left to add. "The music on this album is an introspective survey of self, that's trying to be as fragile and naked as possible with a serene strength, so strong that when you look at the fragility and the nudeness, you're blinded by the light that's protruding. You're not actually looking at the naked body anymore, you're looking at something beyond that."

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