“I’m elated and honoured,” gushes the loquacious and erudite New Orleans horn blower, CHRISTIAN SCOTT, referring to his receiving two nominations (Album Of The Year and Jazz Innovation Of The Year) at the upcoming Jazz FM awards, which are being held at London’s Bloomsbury Ballroom on 26th April. “When you get nominations you can see that people are actually aware of your work and respect what it is that you bring to the table,” explains Scott, who is no stranger to accolades having picked up two prestigious Edison awards in 2010 and 2012. “It’s always something that is very humbling for me, so I’m just excited to get to the UK and hang out with a bunch of folks and really just enjoy the moment.”
It’s fourteen years since Christian Scott, a Berklee School of Music graduate, took the jazz scene by storm with his eponymous debut album in 2002 for the Impromp2 imprint. He then spent a fertile six-year spell at major label Concord that resulted in half-a-dozen albums, including most notably, ‘Yesterday You Said Tomorrow‘ (2010), ‘Ninety Miles‘ (an Afro-Cuban extravaganza also featuring Stefon Harris and David Sanchez, released in 2011) and 2012’s ‘Christian A Tunde Adjuah,’ the latter a sprawling, kaleidoscopic double album where Scott fused several musical styles together in a seamless cross-genre intersection that seemed to challenge the very notion and definition of the word ‘jazz.’ Four years later and Scott is back with ‘Stretch Music,’ an album released on his own label via Ropeadope, whose title is an apt description of what he is trying to do musically and aesthetically – to extend and expand his personal musical vocabulary and describe music that goes beyond the limitations of the genre labels that record companies conveniently use to market music.
Released last September, ‘Stretch Music‘ – which spotlights rising star, flautist Elena Pinderhughes and also has an accompanying interactive music app designed by Scott to help young musicians practice and hone their skills – has been garnering rave reviews and is nominated in the Album Of the Year category in Jazz FM’s 2016 awards (Scott’s ingenious app has also resulted in him being nominated as a Jazz Innovation). The 32-year-old horn meister is up against stiff competition, pitted against major albums by the likes of saxophone sensation Kamasi Washington, Grammy-winning arranger/composer Maria Schneider and the groundbreaking bands Hiatus Coyote and Snarky Puppy. But Scott, who seems laidback, philosophical and down-to-earth, doesn’t see his fellow nominees as rivals or competitors. “I understand it’s an award show as a competition,” he clarifies, “but I don’t really do it for those reasons. I’m friends with Kamasi and know the guys from Snarky Puppy. To me, this is what an album of the year in the jazz category should look like. It’s not that everything that is in the category is straight down the middle. All of these groups and musicians we are talking about here have their own sound. They’re not cookie-cutter jazz groups. These are all bands that take a different walk and that seem to me are going about the business of building bridges back to audiences and I think that’s a very important thing during this time period. I’m excited to actually get a chance to see some of my friends there. But I don’t see it as a competition. It will be great news whoever ends up winning.”
During the rest of his interview with SJF’s Charles Waring, Christian Scott (aka Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah) talks in detail about the concept behind ‘Stretch Music,’ as well as the app that he’s developed to help young musicians, his upcoming gigs in the UK in May, and ambitions for the future…
Looking at the impressive list of nominees in Jazz FM’s Album Of The Year category, how much is it a reflection of how healthy the jazz scene at the moment?
I think we are at an important junction right now. I think the music is as creative as it’s ever been but a lot of time I have a lot of conversations with people about the state of jazz music – if we’re calling it ‘jazz’ – and a lot of those conversations revolve around the idea that the best jazz has already happened, which is an idea which the average listener holds. And I think when you look at the myriad of groups that are actually in this category this year, I think it dispels that notion in the most positive way, so I’m just honoured to be able to take part and to be able to bring what it is that we bring to the table, so I’m delighted.
You’re due to perform in the UK at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival on Sunday May 1st.
That’s going to be a lot of fun. We’re doing Ronnie Scott’s too (Monday 2nd and Tuesday 3rd of May). I’m working to put together some different groups. I have the ‘Stretch Music’ band which is going to be in Europe in June and July but the band that’s going to be playing in May is a different group. The only person from my actual band is going to be the drummer, Corey Fonville. Logan Richardson, the alto saxophonist, is going to join me. We’re going to join forces. That’s going to be really great, I think, for a lot of listeners, to hear what the alto and the trumpet sound like together in 2016, so I’m excited about getting with him. We did the Next Collective record together and that was a lot of fun but I think what will be very cool about this one in May is that people will be able to hear an update on these instruments finally in a context where they’re together.
What about your repertoire? Are you going to draw from the new album?
We’ll play some of the music from the ‘Stretch Music’ record. We’re recording ‘Stretch Music 2’ in April, so the second volume is coming up, and we’ll also be recording a Stretch Music Meet Track Music record in April as well. We’re doing two records. I’m excited about that. You guys are going to hear a mixture of things. It’s not going to be my standard performance with the band that I’ve been touring with and building the last few years. It’s a departure from that but you will still be able to hear some of that content.
Talking about the ‘Stretch Music’ album, what was your inspiration behind it and what was your motivation for doing it?
I think you learn more about it when I explain the history of how I came up with the words ‘Stretch Music’ conceptually. So when I was little boy, I’m growing up in New Orleans in the Ninth Ward. The school that I went to was the first desegregated school in the country, the William Franz Elementary School, which was desegregated by a little girl named Ruby Bridges. That’s just to give you little bit of context. So when I’m growing up, I’m seeing a lot of people going through a lot. There seems like there’s some systemic deals going on, some interpersonal things and un-laudable behaviour which is affecting me. I have an identical twin brother and we are both aware of this and having a twin resources you in a way that you can bounce ideas off of someone that is very similar to you but who also can be very different. And one of the conclusions that we came to from the things that we were seeing as children was a lot of resources that weren’t being disseminated or allocated to our culture. And there were also a lot of pain and a lot of things that people were enduring, like food insecurity, and the only rationale that we could come up with for why a lot of these things were happening was, which as a black man in America, is the last thing you want to come up with, but that was a lot of it was based on race. I’m sure you and I will agree that race exists as a social construct but the reality of it is that it does not exist. There is no Homo Sapiens Africanus. There’s only Homo sapiens, right? So for me, I realised at a very young age that this notion hasn’t created anything of real value and beauty to me, right, and generally when people navigate the world with that on the forefront of their thoughts, it lacks a lot of grace. This is just my opinion but I think it’s a pretty informed one based on my own experience. So when I was younger and when I first started to play trumpet, I fell in love with all forms of music and decided when I was about fourteen or fifteen years old that if I was ever eligible to create my own music then what I wanted to do was try and eradicate the idea of race through my art. So that ended up evolving into what we call Stretch Music now. So just as an example, if I tell you to picture a Western classical musician, and then I tell you to picture a hip-hop musician, and then I tell you to picture a salsa musician, you’re going to see, if we’re being honest, three completely different people. And the thing is that when you think of genre and you break it down in terms of its core tenets, a lot of it actually points to race. So for me, what I decided that I would do is to try and create a means to eradicate the idea of genre as genre is generally seen as the cultural musical expression of a group of people. I thought if I can eradicate the idea of genre then I can also show that these things don’t exist and that all genres can marry each other and are compatible with each other. And if I can do that then what am I saying about race? So the idea was to try and create a musical environment that makes it its business to walk away from that notion as a means to try and find a better space, a more graceful space to occupy.
Do you find that the term ‘jazz’ – with all of its racial connotations – is too restrictive for your own musical expression?
Yep. Look, the thing is, I grew up in a household where, when I was small, my great-grandmother if you used the word jazz, she would be very upset. She was born in the late 1890s and for her, the word jazz just brought back a lot of bad memories. I can recall the word being used around her and it was like she was seeing things when people used that word. She was seeing and remembering things as a child and it didn’t seem good. And a lot of the older generation when I was growing up, when they used that word it was a word that had pain for them. I also understand that the word also represents something incredibly beautiful with a history and a lineage that is incredible, but, my feelings on the word have always been mixed. That doesn’t mean that the overwhelming majority of people when they use the word jazz are trying to do is belittle anyone. At the end of the day we use words because they describes things so it’s complicated, right? I feel that because my music is inherently jazz that does not make it exclusively jazz, so people can use jazz as a descriptor when they’re talking about my music, that is fine, but I caution anyone if they are thinking when they’re listening to what I’m doing that that’s what it is. If that’s so, then that’s being misdiagnosed. That’s the best way to put it. (laughs).
There’s also a special app to go with the Stretch Music album. What’s that about? It sounds very innovative…
This was an idea that I had for years actually. It took a long time to develop but it’s the first of its kind. The Stretch Music app is an interactive media player which allows the listener or the musician to customize their listening and practicing experience. The app gives you the ability to solo and mute any instrument, and you can also couple instruments too, so if you want to solo nine instruments out of ten, you can. You can also pan some instruments left-to-right and the app comes with the charts for every instrument on every song. You can also loop: there’s a looping function, so let’s say if you want to practice a two bar passage or seventeen bar passage, you can loop that area and just play that. And it also comes with tempo controlling, which is really cool, because you can slow it down a lot and speed it up a lot, depending on where you are and what you’re practicing, but it allows the younger musicians to be able to slow things down and transcribe things and you don’t have the other instruments in the way when you’re soloing it.
What’s the feedback been so far for the app?
Really incredible. This thing is selling on par with the record. These younger people are really, really, getting it. We moved seventeen hundred apps in two or three days when we went to the Berklee High School Jazz Festival in Boston for the University that I went to, Berklee College of Music. They invited us there to showcase the app and do master classes and lectures and get with these kids. A lot of them were aware of it but there were over six hundred bands that come there but to be able to move two thousand of these things in two days with the students, I think it shows a lot about where they’re at within the fact that this is something that can help them get better, which is ultimately the goal. Of course, as an audio file it’s not just for student and if you’re just a music lover you can mix and chop up my album and do all kinds of things to my record that you could never do before, which is cool, but ultimately, when these students get their hands on it’s a tool that really helps them.
Still on the subject of innovation, you’ve also developed some new brass instruments – namely the Reverse Flugelhorn, the Siren and Sirenette.
I have my own customized brass line which I designed and they’re made by Adams instruments (in Holland). The Reverse Flugelhorn is a flugel that has two deep shepherds crooks that allow the instrument to basically blow like a trumpet, because the flugelhorn is conical, which means it’s getting bigger from the mouthpiece to the bell, it’s bigger, so for this reason it generally makes it a little bit harder to play in the upper register historically so we created an instrument where you can actually ‘play upstairs’ with power like a trumpet but it has the sound of a flugelhorn. The Sirenette is the small version of another horn that we created called the siren which is a hybrid of a flugel and a trumpet. The Sirenette is like the baby version: it’s like a hybrid of a flugel, a cornet and a trumpet, and this one has a very dark sound but it’s really cutting, and a very accurate instrument and a very powerful instrument even though it’s a baby instrument. The Siren is like the big gun and it feels like a really, really powerful trumpet that can take a different type of beating but the sound isn’t shrill or too bright or cutting. All of them are darker and feel different so they’re hybrid instruments – we just take things from other types of brass instruments and we twist this or bend that or adjust that to give it the qualities of some of the other horns.
On ‘Stretch Music’ you introduce 20-year-old flautist, Elena Pinderhughes (pictured left, photo by S Cohen) who features prominently. How did you discover her?
Elena is incredible and I think it’s maybe more that she discovered me (laughs). Her brother is a guy named Samora Pinderhughes, an incredible piano player. I heard about this young duo that was coming out of the Bay Area and every time I played in New York I would have them come and sit in. The first time that I heard Elena play it was a red letter day in my life. She is one of the most proficient musicians I’ve ever played with and, as you know, I’ve played with a lot of musicians (laughs). Technically, that’s one thing, but the thing that is most captivating about her is her voice and the thing is she has the ability to pull you in in a way that I haven’t felt in a very long time. It’s really uncanny. As a listener it’s one thing but when you’re on the bandstand, playing, my band will follow her into the environmental spaces that she creates that can be sort of tumultuous terrain musically. They will follow her to places that generally the overwhelming majority musicians will never go and they willingly follow her into these places because one, the amount of refinement that she has, they know she’s going to be able to execute anywhere that they go, and two, because they trust her. The thing is, building a voice as an improviser that the people that are in support of you trust, is very difficult because there’s a natural tendency to trust where you want the composition to go, not where someone else is taking you. And so the things that she comes up with are really incredible and she’s also an incredible vocalist too, so it’s one of those things when I heard her play I knew I was going to have to adjust my music to accommodate her voice and I feel that way about all the younger musicians that are in my band. For me, what I feel that we are doing musically is just priming the canvas so their generation can just take it and run with it. So it’s been great getting a chance to get to know the young lady and have her actually cut up a little bit but she is fantastic.
What inspired you to pick up a trumpet in the first place?
I wanted to hang out with my uncle (Donald Harrison Jr), and he played the saxophone (laughs raucously). I guess more accurately I wanted to be my uncle but I couldn’t play the sax because I probably wouldn’t go on the road so I realised pretty early on if I played trumpet and I practiced that and I got good enough I thought that at some point maybe he would think I was good enough to play with him, so I made it my business to do my work. I was very diligent as a younger person in my music. Any moment you saw me there was either a horn or a mouthpiece in my mouth or I was listening to something or reading something about music so I wasn’t going to let it not happen because of a lack of work and effort. But I think I did it because I wanted to hang out with him.
At what age did you believe that you were going to be a trumpet player and nothing else?
The moment that I got the instrument. Well, I mean it hurt at first, the trumpet is difficult (laughs), and there may have been a few days where I was like “I don’t know,” but after a couple of weeks I was right in there.
How important has saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr – you’re Uncle, and who you cut your teeth with early on in your career – been to your own development as a musician, hasn’t he?
You know what? None of this stuff that we are talking about would have existed were it not that Donald Harrison Jr (pictured left with Christian) hadn’t taken me under his wing. I owe him a great deal. Even in terms of what it is that we are doing with ‘Stretch Music,’ is an extension of the music that he created in the ’90s when I was coming up under him. This is how I learned to play music, right? So everything that I’m doing is a part and an extension of what it is he contributed.
Changing subject, do you have an all-time favourite jazz album?
Ah, gee. It would be very difficult for me to pick one. I love so many records. I just did an interview the other day where they were asking me what album influenced me the most as a younger person, like what was the first one, and my answer to that was a Clifford Brown record called ‘The Beginning And The End ‘ (pictured below) and that chronicled his journey musically starting with him playing like race records and ending with him playing ‘Donna Lee’ during a live recording the day before he died or something like that and it’s really incredible. Whenever I hear it I’m still in awe. So I think if I had to pick one album it would be that one because of the range of emotions that it brings up. It also reminds me of part of my childhood when there was still mystery to this music.
Was Clifford Brown one of the earliest influences upon your own style?
Yeah, I love Clifford Brown, he’s great. Of course I listen to Diz (Dizzy Gillespie), and Miles (Davis) and Fats Navarro. I really love Roy Eldridge and Howard McGhee. You name it, man, I was a kid who tried to listen to everyone: Louis Armstrong, Doc Cheatham, the guys in the fifties and the sixties, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan and Tommy Turrentine. You name it I was listening to it.
Talking beyond the current album, what would you like to accomplish in the future?
We’re recording ‘Stretch Music 2’ and then the track music record this year. Our touring schedule is really crazy. We start tomorrow actually in Chicago and we are booked solid pretty much until November. With the next record, which is probably going to come out in September, we’ll probably be out (on the road) until January. So it’s going to be a lot of touring and I think that once that is done, I want to sit down with some of the other musicians and talk about and re-evaluate everything and try and figure out what needs to happen in terms of building the app company. I think the app has a huge upside and the threshold to create something that has a really large impact and can affect change musically, which I think the app has potential to do so, I’m excited about getting more serious about that and sort of digging in harder and galvanizing more resources for that as opposed to just dealing with making records. And I have an identical brother, his name is Kiel Adrian Scott (pictured on the right with Christian, below). He’s a film director and has been Spike Lee’s assistant director for years and he is just really incredible. He’s going to be making his first feature film in the next eighteen months to two years. He’s made a bunch of shorts and won pretty much every major award that you can win in the states. He won the Directors Guild of America award as one of the best young directors so he’s incredible and so I also want to help him do what it is he’s doing so I’ll be doing a lot more film scoring.
How does creating film scores compare with making albums?
It’s a little bit different. You’re dealing more with trying to illuminate the sub-textual elements of what’s going on in particular scene as opposed to just expressing what you’re feeling in that moment. So, it’s a different muscle, but for me, I like it. It’s challenging, but I went to Berklee for film scoring. What I like most about it is that it’s less about me – in fact, it’s not about me at all and that’s a good thing. So I just like being able to put things together and playing things in a way that doesn’t really exist in my music on my records, so that’s a lot of fun for me.