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Logan Richardson: To Boldly Go Where No Jazz Has Gone Before

Photo credit: Paolo Soriani

Chris May By

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Blues People gave me a certain freedom to be uninhibited about the past, to have an eternal feeling of forward direction. Basically, not to give a fuck. Not that I ever really did. But with Blues People and AfroFuturism, I definitely don’t.
—Logan Richardson
In a 2016 interview, Kansas City-born alto saxophonist Logan Richardson said: "Jazz will constantly change because there's constantly a new us, new times. There will always be a fight from the conformists—but they don't represent where the tradition is coming from." Richardson was talking not long after the release of his adventurous Blue Note album, Shift, featuring guitarist Pat Metheny.

Warning! Shift sounds positively conservative compared to 2021's AfroFuturism (WAX Industry / Whirlwind). The new album's reference points, either intended by Richardson or imagined by the listener, are shared with those of three other bandleaders who inhabit the broad church that is post-Sun Ra Afrofuturist jazz: flautist Nicole Mitchell's radical composing paradigm, alto saxophonist Matana Roberts' Coin Coin albums (Constellation, 2011-2019) and, on around half the tracks, the epic scale of tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington's orchestrations.

Richardson parallels Roberts' use of sung and spoken-word field and archive recordings with sound bites from his great-grandmother, his mother, the rapper Busta Rhymes and the vibraphonist Stefon Harris. He touches on Washington not by assembling a band as big as the one required to perform Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, but by overdubbing members of his octet. Add a simulated string section, Björk / Kate Bush's lovechild, and echoes of Radiohead, Frank Zappa, rock 'n' jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock, trap and prog rock, and you are beginning to penetrate the post-modern surface.

Much of AfroFuturism's sound is big, like Phil Spector's would have been big if he had produced a Charles Mingus album with 2021 technology. The less epically scaled material includes "Farewell Goodbye," an elegy sung by Laura Taglialatela for the late pianist McCoy Tyner, which is introduced by Richardson's great-grandmother's acapella singing, and "Black Wall Street," on which Ezgi Karakus' string section combines with Richardson's saxophone to create a respite of neo-acoustic sound. The title refers to the 1921 Tulsa race riot, in which a murderous white mob, enabled by the police and city authorities, burnt the eponymous black neighbourhood to the ground.

Afrofuturism is likely to receive a mixed reception in the jazz world. The conformists Richardson was talking about in 2016 will question whether it is jazz at all. More perniciously, social and political conservatives will hide behind the same argument to disguise their hostility towards any music which asserts blackness and refers directly to the injustices inflicted on black people. Back in the day, conformists and conservatives (they are not necessarily one and the same) adopted similar positions against John Coltrane and his fellow travellers. A black jazz musician speaking out for black rights in the 1950s and 1960s risked losing a significant proportion of his or her white audience along with the support of mainstream critics. Riverside Records' Orrin Keepnews was so concerned about this that in his liner notes for the first edition of Sonny Rollins' Freedom Suite (1958), he tied himself up in knots suggesting that the album title was about any sort of freedom you liked except the Civil Rights movement-inspired freedom that Rollins was so obviously talking about.

In 2021, it is Richardson's turn to rattle the jazz cage and confront its keyholders. Another Kansas City-born alto saxophonist might well be looking on and applauding.

Born in 1980, Richardson was brought up in Kansas City before moving to Boston and New York to study at Berklee College of Music and The New School. He released his first album, Cerebral Flow (Fresh Sound New Talent), in 2007. In 2011, he moved to Europe, living in Spain, France and Italy before returning to the US. AfroFuturism's immediate predecessor was 2018's transgressive Blues People (Brainchildworld). Richardson has set up his own label, WAX Industry, which released Afrofuturism in 2020. He later struck a distribution deal with Whirlwind, which will release physical editions of the album in April 2021.

Richardson spoke to All About Jazz from Rome, where in 2021 he lives with his partner, the aforementioned Italian singer and artist Laura Taglialatela, who designed AfroFuturism's off-planet sleeve art and is featured on three of its tracks. The couple had previously lived in Kansas City, in one of Charlie Parker's childhood homes (more about that below), but Taglialatela had to return to Italy after the Trump administration cancelled her US visa. Richardson concludes the interview by talking about the six jazz albums which have had the greatest impact on his development (six being the number imposed on him by AAJ).

All About Jazz: Do you come from a musical family?

Logan Richardson: None of them were musicians but they all loved music. There was always music. And fortunately for me, everyone had good taste. There were loads of great LPs around the house. The Temptations, The O'Jays, Stevie Wonder, Ashford & Simpson, Hall & Oates, Michael Jackson, a lot of different things. And my older brothers were obsessed with Prince, so I was constantly hearing Prince from when I was like five years old. No one really listened to jazz, though there were some jazz LPs around. I remember Woody Shaw's Woody III. I was obsessed by the sax from a very young age. The way it looked, the way it sounded. I got into jazz during my second year at high school, after I came across this little picture-based book in the school library. It was about a guy named Charlie "Yardbird" Parker who was also from Kansas City and who played alto saxophone. I wondered, who was this guy? So my mum took me to Best Buy and I got The Charlie Parker Gold Collection. The first track was "A Night In Tunisia" from the Massey Hall concert, and that four-bar break when he starts his solo... oh my god. It's crazy to think that a four-bar break in a song could create an entire life's direction, but it did. From that moment, I knew what I wanted to do.

AAJ: Was the Kansas City school system supportive?

LR: I was fortunate being the age I was, because the city started these "magnet schools," specialist schools for high school age kids. So when I was fifteen I transferred to a performing arts school and I got a school issue alto. Before that I'd been playing one lent to me by a friend—I didn't get my own instrument until I was seventeen. I would skip lunch, I would skip class, I would do anything to practice. After school I would go straight home and practice. I never hung out. Then in 1996 the 18th & Vine Jazz Institute opened. The first week I went Max Roach was my tutor. Shirley Scott the next week. A few weeks later it was Bobby Watson, hometown hero. And they paid us to go there. If you went they gave you $500. And you got taught by all these great people. Jay McShann, people like that who were still around. Later it was Kenny Burrell, Richard Davis. I was very fortunate.

AAJ: When you were nineteen you went to Berklee College of Music. Why did you leave in your second year?

LR: I had to leave because of financial issues. People went to Gary Burton [Berklee's vice president and head of curriculum] asking him to let me stay. But apparently he said, "If we do this for Logan we have to do it for everybody." They couldn't afford that. So I went back to Kansas City. By this time I really wanted to be in New York. So I sent an audition tape to the New School and I got a full ride, the Zoot Sims Scholarship. That's where I met Marcus Strickland, E.J. Strickland, Robert Glasper and a load of other people who had either just graduated or were still there. I got taught by Gary Bartz and Greg Osby and Billy Hart and Joe Chambers. I was learning from all these amazing musicians.

AAJ: Were you gigging much by this time?

LR: I never stopped working from when I was sixteen. In Kansas City, I would sometimes do two or three gigs a day, lots of private functions. It was school related so it wasn't a problem. When I was at Berklee I had gigs right away, same when I got to New York. Secretly, I went into my lessons at the New School looking to get gigs. I mean, I'm going to get the knowledge, for sure, absolutely. But the way I'm approaching class is like networking, getting noticed. And it worked. Joe Chambers, Greg Tardy, they were like "I'm going to put you in my band." Nasheet Waits the same thing. "As soon as I start a band you're going to be in it."

AAJ: In 2019, after seven years in Europe, you were back in Kansas City. How did you come to live in Charlie Parker's childhood home? It sounds too good to be happenstance.

LR: The mother of an old friend from high school was a former real estate agent and I mentioned that I was looking for somewhere for me and Laura to live. She said there was this place where Charlie Parker spent part of his childhood and it was available to rent. I was like, "What are you talking about! Take me there!" I did some investigation and it was well documented on the city register. Charlie Parker lived there from 1930 to 1932. It was right in the centre of town but it had a really great, chilled atmosphere. We're back in Rome now. We've got a studio in the house. Much of Afrofuturism was recorded here.

AAJ: In 2020, you released AfroFuturism on September 23rd, John Coltrane's birthday. That sounds too good to be happenstance, too.

LR: Releasing it on Trane's birthday was a symbolic gesture. For me, it's a really special album. When I chose the title it was mainly because it sounded cool. But it is also part of the Afrofuturist genre in the sense that I'm coming from the African diaspora and I employ cutting-edge technologies to make the music. Afrofuturism is like a scientific laboratory that is combining modern inventions with ancient wisdom to create this thing that is new. To me, black people, black culture in general, has to be futuristic. Because basically the only thing that can lift black folks is the future, it's the only thing that can get us through the drudge of what's happening now. For us, futuristic thinking is about survival. Of course, we have to know the past, but we mustn't be mesmerized by it.

AAJ: The album doesn't so much recalibrate the definition of jazz as blow it up.

LR: It was really a natural progression from Blues People. Despite the name, that was basically a rock album. I mean, we weren't doing stuff like Ma Rainey, we were actually playing rock music if you want to get into categories. Blues People gave me a certain freedom to be uninhibited about the past, to have an eternal feeling of forward direction. In other words, basically not to give a fuck. Not that I ever really did. But with Blues People and AfroFuturism, I definitely don't. Charlie Parker said, "They teach you that there is a boundary line to music. But, man, there is no boundary line to art." I live by that quote. Another one is, "Don't play the saxophone, let the saxophone play you." It's like you can have someone playing jazz or someone actually living jazz.

AAJ: Do you think that being reverential about the tradition, about the elders, can be a handicap to progress?

LR: It's always important to understand the culture of our ancestors. But our minds have to be set on the future. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, they were thinking of the future. "OK, we're going to work now so that in the future we're going to have freedom or something approaching it. In the future we're all going to be able to go to the same schools. This is what we're working towards." So the thought process has to be future-centric. People say it is important to follow the elders, but one of the things they forget to say is that the elders they're talking about were in their early twenties, maybe even their teens, when they made those recordings that shook things up and changed the direction of travel.

AAJ: It's like they're saying that Herbie Hancock was already eighty years old when he made Takin' Off. He'd just turned twenty-two.

LR: Tony Williams was sixteen, seventeen when he playing with Miles. Clifford Brown died when he was still only twenty-four. Booker Little was twenty-three. Scott LaFaro was twenty-five. Eric Dolphy, Charlie Parker, they died in their mid thirties. John Coltrane was forty. And that's when they left us, not when they made the records that changed things.

AAJ: Idris Ackamoor titled his 2016 album We Be All Africans. From that perspective, Afrofuturism could be the road map for non-black people as well as black people.

LR: Humankind began in Africa. We're all part of the diaspora, we're all Africans in some form or other. Some people don't like to hear that. All types of people. The word Afrofuturism makes them uncomfortable. I was talking to Christian Scott the other day about when he did "KKPD Klu Klux Police Department" [on Yesterday You Said Tomorrow, Concord, 2010]. He was saying, "Look at all the brothers and sisters who are trying to be Afrocentric now, because it's popular, and for years I felt like I was the only person doing it. I was ridiculed by the very same people who are coming out now talking about Afro this and Afro that." They were telling him, "Hey, you might want to back off that a bit because it may hurt your pocket." It was black folks saying he might be better off if he didn't stand up for black people. Black people have to stop being slaves in their minds. That's where most slavery exists today. The whips and chains of the slave times were just the beginning of ways to condition people. Personal, mental and emotional well being is at the top of the thing. If your mind is strong, if your heart is strong, you can really survive anything. I believe once those things get compromised then it quickly leads to your body and your life being compromised.

AAJ: Before you talk about your six album choices, please tell us about anything else you've got scheduled for 2021.

LR: I'm actually working on four albums, all for 2021. They're with the AfroFuturism band basically. I'm not big on guest artists, though with Shift I thought I probably could only afford to have Pat Metheny on a couple of tracks. I reached out and explained that and when he got back to me he said, "I'll do it on one condition: I play on the whole album." He didn't want to be a guest artist, he wanted to be part of the band. He was so great.

AAJ: Can you tell us a little about the upcoming albums?

LR: One is the follow-up to Blues People. I'm just putting the final touches to the post production. Then there's a trilogy. I was going to call them The Gospel Volume 1, The Gospel Volume 2 and The Gospel Volume 3. But I found out somebody is releasing an album called something like that, so that title is out. It's jazz but I'm playing around with gospel voicings in the arrangements. I'm in the process of organising the track sequences. I've actually recorded enough material to put out six or seven albums this year, like Miles did with all those albums he made in 1956, or Christian Scott with The Centennial Trilogy in 2017. I'm so full of music I can't stand it, in a positive sense. Man, I'm just trying to get it out. I have anything but writer's block, I'll put it that way.

LOGAN RICHARDSON: SIX ALBUMS OF ENDLESS TRANSFORMATIVE INFLUENCE

These are just the jazz albums I value above all else. I'm also into other styles. Like I'm a huge Prince fan and Purple Rain is a very, very important album for me. And Radiohead, I love everything they've done. Thom Yorke really fucks me up. And Queen. Take "Bohemian Rhapsody." You tell me the difference between that and Duke Ellington. And Frank Zappa. I could go on. But staying with jazz, these are the albums which have had and continue to have endless transformative influence on me.

The Quintet
Jazz At Massey Hall
Debut, 1956

As I said earlier, the first four bars of Charlie Parker's solo on "Night In Tunisia" set me on my course when I was fourteen. I think now that when he made that break the development of the alto saxophone was complete. From the start I was fascinated by how he sounded so different from all the saxophonists that went before. Then later I learnt that he was obsessed with Art Tatum. He wanted to sound like Art Tatum on the saxophone and in my opinion Tatum is the absolute last word. Everything I do is to pay tribute to Bird. He's the reason I'm talking to you today.

Art Tatum
20th Century Piano Genius
Emarcy, 1986

There were certain albums I got when I was in my teens that I didn't fully understand till I was twenty-three, twenty-four. Like this one. I got it when I was sixteen. I knew that I liked it a lot but I had yet to discover its depth. Like Charlie Parker, I want to play like Tatum on the horn. All the range, everything. All this pictographing he does, it's like watching a movie when you're listening to him. For me, whatever instrument you play, whether it's drums, bass, saxophone, trumpet, whatever, Art Tatum is everything. And I actually prefer him when he's playing solo, like here. He doesn't need a band, he's more than enough by himself.

John Coltrane
Giant Steps
Atlantic, 1960

Soon after I heard Jazz At Massey Hall, I was staying at my grandmother's house for the summer. On my birthday, my oldest brother bought me this album. He's not a jazz person, but he knew I had started teaching myself saxophone. He said, "I hear this guy is really good, he's called John Coltrane." I put it on and... wow, whatever happened with Massey Hall I was totally engulfed by this. Two revelations in short order. This album opened my mind up to the idea of concept. It made everything clear.

Kenny Garrett
Pursuance: The Music Of John Coltrane
Warner Bros., 1996

At the time I was coming up in Boston and New York, barely anyone was playing alto, it was all tenor players. Most times I would easily be the only alto saxophonist in the room. And this album gave me confidence. I was into Bird, I was into Trane, and here's Kenny Garrett, who is relatively young enough for me to relate to on his level, who's alive and playing, that has this sound that's so funky. Remember, I'm from Kansas City, so I like blues and soul and rock 'n' roll. Pursuance was playing tenor concepts on alto, with this dark sound. I don't like bright sounds, little pinchy alto sounds. I like a darker, bigger sound. So this album taught me a lot about how to hear John Coltrane on my horn.

Cannonball Adderley & John Coltrane
Cannonball & Coltrane
Limelight, 1964

This one also came out as In Chicago under Cannonball Adderley's name. Two of the greatest saxophonists ever, a double dose of heaven. Cannonball has that fat, big sound and crazy dexterity. Like all the other saxophonists I love you can tell how much he loves Bird—and also how much he didn't sound like Bird. He found himself through his love of Bird and being yourself is everything. Anyone who comes after Trane and says they have their own concept when really they've just transcriptions of him, they don't do it for me. Because they stole Trane's music. If they come out and say, "This is John Coltrane's concept," fine, I can respect that. But no, they say, "This is my concept." No disrespect to George Garzone, he's bad, he was one of my teachers, I love George Garzone. But his Triadic Chromatic Approach? It's not his concept, it's Coltrane's. David Liebman, he's a bad motherfucker too, but it's the same thing. It's hard for me to listen to someone whose whole thing comes from Trane. I can't stand it.

Miles Davis
Nefertiti
Columbia, 1968

I definitely need to slide some Miles in here, he's so critical. There's so many albums I could choose—Kind Of Blue, Bitches Brew, Sketches Of Spain, Milestones, Birth Of The Cool, Miles In The Sky, The Sorcerer. But I guess if I get right down to it, it probably has to be Nefertiti. This is the album that taught me about the importance of setting a mood. Compositionally and also by the way that the band plays, the continuance, the way one person will play and then the next player will pick it up. There was this tremendous flow between musicians that existed in this period of Miles. One person knows what the other person is saying so well that they can finish the conversation. They're all like spirits dancing in the room together. Nefertiti gives me the feeling of being totally lost within this space that they've created.

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