Christian Scott is one of a handful of musicians who can genuinely be said to be moving jazz forward. A New Orleans-born trumpeter (and nephew of saxophonist Donald Harrison), he’s made eight studio albums as a leader to date, beginning in 2002 with a self-titled and self-released debut. Following that, he signed with Concord and put out 2006’s Rewind That, 2007’s Anthem, and 2008’s Live at Newport. He really began to break through, though, with 2010’s Yesterday You Said Tomorrow and 2012’s Christian aTunde Adjuah, a sprawling, ambitious two-CD set that marked the end of his tenure with Concord. Spending nearly three years away, he re-emerged with 2015’s Stretch Music, on the Ropeadope label. The album was accompanied by an app that allowed people to fade down individual tracks and play along (sheet music was also included).
This year, Scott is releasing three albums as part of the Centennial Trilogy. The first, Ruler Rebel, is out now; the second and third volumes, Diaspora and The Emancipation Procrastination, will be out in summer and fall, respectively. The entire trilogy is available for pre-order on Bandcamp; fans will receive each album as it’s released, and the CD version of the entire trilogy in September.
Ruler Rebel features a variety of personnel from track to track: Scott plays trumpet, siren, sirenette, reverse flugelhorn, and SPD-SX sampling pad (he’s a beatmaker as well as a horn player); Elena Pinderhughes plays flute on two tracks; Lawrence Fields plays piano and Fender Rhodes; three different bassists—Luques Curtis, Kris Funn, and Joshua Crumbly—are heard; Cliff Hines plays guitar on five tracks; and four percussionists—Corey Fonville, Joe Dyson Jr., Weedie Braimah, and Chief Shaka Shaka—play various instruments on one track or another. Sarah Elizabeth Charles sings.
I spoke to Scott about his new music, his custom horns, and much more by phone earlier this month. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
You play these custom horns with tilted bells—how does the shape of the horn affect the sound? Do you get a stronger range, or more power, or something?
OK, so you’re speaking about the trumpet specifically? I have four different prototypes, and different models do different things, but with the tilted bell trumpet, it changes a lot, actually. The idea behind why I wanted to have the bell tilted like that was, that last angle on the trumpet traditionally is pretty abrasive, so this creates a lot of back pressure; it makes it a little easier to play in the upper register of the horn. But it’s very difficult to get a multitude of timbres and textures out of one instrument, so when you make that last angle less abrasive—like, for most of my horns it’s between 22 and 27 degrees—it opens the horn up a lot. So I can change the sound and the timbre of the instrument from within the horn in a way that’s very different from a traditional trumpet. Not just what I’m doing with the traditional ways of being able to change timbre, but also in terms of what I’m doing with the temperature of my breath also affects the instrument greatly, so the way the horn reacts is quite different from a traditional trumpet. You lose a little in the higher register, but this is something that you can work back up.
I feel like your playing has changed a lot over the last couple of years—not so many high notes, not so much hard blowing, and more atmospheric and mellow. More mute, too. Do you agree?
No, I mean, I think—it’s always hard to, when you say the playing, it always depends on the context. If I get a call to play a tribute to Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo, I have to be able to play that. So it becomes about what is necessary for the music to tell the most accurate story, to depict what I’m trying to depict. A lot of what we’re pulling from and what we’re creating, obviously this form is something that happens in abstraction. So it becomes about what the song demands. This next release is three records’ worth of material, over 40 compositions, and the deluxe version that’s gonna be available on our app is gonna have close to 67 compositions on them. So depending on what you’re hearing at what moment, you may hear some very high notes and some bop phrases and very fast lines, and other things may be muted and soft, or other things may be played on the flugelhorn and very introverted. So I think because of the spaces that I traditionally played in my band for maybe five or six years, the group was a quintet, so there weren’t any other horn players and there was a lot more space for me to play and sort of expand on what I was thinking at the moment. Whereas now, the track that has the least amount of people on it on the newest record has maybe eight voices on it. Right? So I don’t have to go about the business of playing five-minute, epic trumpet solos, because there’s so many other perspectives within the confines of the composition. So it just changes. But I don’t know that my playing has necessarily evolved in one way or another that drastically. I think really it’s been me more concentrating on the compositional and production angle on these particular recordings.
I’m kind of hearing some links to ’80s Miles in what you’re doing, especially starting on Stretch Music. And I know you played on Marcus Miller’s Tutu Revisited album, so how do you relate to ’80s Miles? Was that the first Miles you heard? It was for me—I heard Kind of Blue and You’re Under Arrest within a few weeks of each other, when I was 15.
No, my first diet of Miles Davis was my grandfather playing live recordings of Tadd Dameron in the mid-’50s in Europe. In that moment, Miles actually sounded frighteningly similar to Diz; that was the school of thought that he was coming out of at that time. But how I learned most of those landmark practitioners of this music, most of them happened in order and sort of through the canon of their careers. It’s really interesting how you heard it, to hear Kind of Blue and then You’re Under Arrest, ’cause they’re really dope documents but they’re very contrasting. But for me it was like, I heard Miles with Tadd Dameron, then I heard the live apartment sessions with Charlie Parker, then I heard the first cool stuff and then also some post-bop recordings for Prestige, all of the all-star stuff he was doing there, Bags’ Groove with Milt Jackson and all that sort of stuff. Then I heard the stuff on Sony, on Columbia, like Round Midnight and Miles Smiles. Then some of the live concerts and then eventually Kind of Blue. Then, after that stuff, I eventually started listening to stuff that happened in the ’60s, like Nefertiti and ESP and Someday My Prince Will Come, the kind of transitional one. And then I started listening to the fusion stuff like In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Live-Evil, and then the stuff that encroached into the late ’70s and early ’80s as well. So my listening to his playing never really stopped over the entire time that I was developing. I listened to his playing, and to him playing in all of those environments. I think there are definitely factions of what it was that he was dealing with musically in those moments in the ’80s that have encroached into part of my process.
When you can get a jazz player to talk about hip-hop at all, they’ll mostly talk about Dilla, or maybe DJ Premier. But who are you listening to? What’s inspiring the production on the new album?
Man, I like a lot of things. Obviously as a New Orleanian, coming up, the Cash Money thing was really big when I was in high school, so I used to like Mannie Fresh’s production style, I used to think that it was really dope, but I could also hear the rhythms of New Orleans in his particular production acumen. The Kanye West-ian style, obviously there’s a ton of examples of him changing his production style in recent years, but I’ve always found it fascinating, his ability to be able to use voices as a means of creating tapestries and environments. So that initially drew me to him, and obviously artistically I think the guy is a pretty brilliant dude. To be able to create as much space as he’s been able to create in his catalog over such a short time. Obviously I love Dr. Dre, I love Timbaland, I love Pharrell Williams—none of these names are surprises, I don’t think. But obviously I love hip-hop music and I love MCs—I listen to Eric B. & Rakim, I’ve worked with Mos Def, there’s a myriad of MCs that I’ve always been in love with, but really the part of the culture that is most attractive to me as it relates to my music is actually what the producers are doing, more than the rappers. And I really, really like trap music, man. I think what is evolving in terms of the liberation of movement and how people dance to this music is really incredible, so that was what first captivated me about the form, and I started to check out more of the artists and fell in love with a part of that production acumen and what that does.
How does playing over these kinds of beats change your approach to melody and soloing? Obviously, you’ve got a lot less harmony to work with, so are you forced to be more linear? Does it take away the blues element?
Well, I think it’s a lot, and it depends on the composition. There are some songs where obviously, because the palette may be more bare, sometimes less is more, and you’re not superimposing too many things and you’re just speaking over that environment. But there are other compositions on the next couple of records that are coming that take that type of feel, trap and whatever you wanna call that sort of space, but also superimpose more dense harmonic types as the improviser is telling their story or building their story. So you can still take a moment, a trap song or this type of environment that has maybe one or two chords, and you can still imply things with those changes and things of that nature that help to create a more captivating story type. So it depends on the composition and the story that we’re trying to tell. But I don’t find it to be limiting on any level. You mentioned Miles Davis earlier—one of the things that I learned from part of what they were working on modally, from working with McCoy Tyner’s band, and he’s probably somebody that Trane spoke a lot with about what Miles was doing, you know; I guess one of Miles’s ideas at one point was, it’s actually a lot harder to improvise over a stagnant mode or changes that aren’t moving as opposed to the really moving changes, because once you develop the language you at least have something to say when the changes are moving rapidly. But when the environment doesn’t really move much, you actually have to stand there and captivate and the same story type can be a little more challenging. I always thought that was interesting, and kind of like it in this context as well.
On your first few albums for Concord, you had people in the band who had names of their own like Esperanza Spalding and Walter Smith III—they’ve kind of gradually been phased out in favor of your own crew. Did you have to prove yourself to the label, or to the jazz world, in some way to be allowed to do that? Or were those people you wanted to work with anyway, and having Concord behind you allowed you to get them?
No, that’s not really what happened at all. Esperanza was my girlfriend; we dated for four years. When we made the recording for Anthem, which was 2007, this was before she had ever put a record out on her own. So no one really—we were all still students at school. So no one really knew of her. I think Walter had maybe made a Fresh Sound record or something like that, but in terms of, like—the musicians may have been aware of who a lot of the first generation band were, but essentially a lot of us were still cutting our teeth, like 18, 19, 20 years old, hadn’t really put a record out. So I think part of what was going on in that generation was, we were Berklee students who were still trying to find our sound and find our way. When I decided to sign to Concord Records, I had been vetted by Warner Bros. and also Blue Note wanted to do a deal, but I had started my own record label when I was 19, at Berklee, and put out a record that sold a lot of copies internationally on my own. So when Concord came to the table to do the deal, I had a pretty strong position to negotiate from. It’s different if you get a cold call, or if an A&R guy quote-unquote discovers you or something like that, but by the time I had put my own record out on my own label, I was 19 and I’d played with McCoy Tyner’s band, Kenny Barron’s band, I had been on the road with my uncle Donald [Harrison]’s band, I had played with Eddie Palmieri’s group, I had played with Ron Carter’s group, all as a teenager. So I didn’t have to really broker anything, and it was really more me saying look, I’m gonna go in this direction—you can go in this direction with us and help us do this, or you can not, but either way, we’re gonna go in this direction. And them sort of getting that. So I think our relationship with them was very different from a lot of the people who ended up signing subsequently. It’s strange because even though we were so young, we benefited by being sort of the first band up on that tier, because even a couple of years later, maybe three years later, Espe signed to Heads Up with Dave Love and it ended up they wanted her record to be a part of Concord, be part of the larger label, but there was a lot of those bands that came in and eventually tried to do that—things like Walter’s band, or when they did the NEXT Collective thing. There was a lot that they went through that I kind of didn’t have to go through because I was sort of the beginning of all of that. But I learned a lot. I think we all learned a lot, and I think it’s great that everyone is doing so well. But in the beginning of what we were doing, like, you check the dates of when we were recording this stuff, this is significantly before these folks made their own individual records. We were basically just kids still.
I don’t know whether it was because of changes in the business or what, but I feel like you were able to avoid some of the pitfalls of the jazz industry. You never did an album where your whole band was three times your age like, Introducing Christian Scott, you never did what I call a “young guy plays the music of dead guy” album…
Right, no. It’s funny, because when you say the “Introducing Christian Scott” thing, there’s a record called that that isn’t my record—it’s a bootleg that’s on Spotify, and I get emails about this record every day, everywhere we go on the road people talk about this record and I cringe. It was literally a group of Russian guys that followed us around Europe for a summer and then made a record and put it out and now everybody hears this record. But in terms of avoiding those pitfalls, I started touring when I was 13 years old, and because I was really quiet, I was very discriminating about when I chose to speak and what I chose to play, musically, and I think because at a very early age I figured out how to get a gig and to be around master musicians, learning the art of apprenticeship and what that really meant, I think that afforded me a lot of opportunities that my peers didn’t get and that my predecessors maybe had only gotten in one context. But I was with a lot of really great older musicians that had a wealth of knowledge they were eager to give and impart. And so by the time I became 18, 19 years old and it was the moment for me to say what I wanted to say musically, I had vetted out a lot of playing in the more traditional style, and the way that I viewed the tradition was that, as opposed to the tradition being, you have to sound this way and you have to play your notes this way and the blues has to sound like this and these are the rhythms that you play and you don’t play—the way that I saw the tradition was, this music was always something that every generation brought a completely new style and a completely different mode of operating, ways of thinking, value systems, different vernacular, different sonic landscape, all of these things were really important to me to try and vet out and define for our generation. So I kinda decided at a young age that part of what I wanted my life’s work to be was what eventually grew into stretch music. which was a complete reevaluation of the ways in which we actually communicate musically, as a means of trying to figure out how to sharpen how people perceive what it is that we’re doing and also to build bridges between cultures of music. So I wasn’t interested in, like, being the best jazz trumpeter. To me that was a really limiting idea. I was interested in creating an environment where everyone could figure out a way to communicate the best way to the listener based on a multitude of musical perspectives being valid as opposed to just one style of playing.
One guy who’s been with you since the beginning is Matthew Stevens. What has he given you as a creative partner?
Well, Matt is—the thing is, firstly, Matt’s my best friend. And what’s happened is, in my career trajectory, even with those first bands you were talking about with Esperanza and Walter and Luques and Zaccai Curtis and Thomas Pridgen and all these folks, all of the groups have always been my close, close friends. I prefer to make music with people that—I don’t necessarily have to agree with them politically or any of these types of things. There’s been different cultures, different sexual preferences, any idea you can think of, there’s been a wide array of that in different versions of my band over the years, and we don’t necessarily have to agree on things, and I think that creates a beautiful space, musically. But traditionally I like to play music with people that I have feelings for, and that have character types that are open. It’s very difficult to do what we do when a musician is closed. So part of what Matthew brought to the table was, Matt is one of the most open people that I’ve ever met. Just as a person. Obviously the musicianship is a byproduct of the person, but you would be hard pressed to find someone that has a more open and warm heart, and you can hear that. He’s a courageous player, and when you hear his improvising you can hear that he’s willing to take it anywhere, and strong—I think Matt’s the baddest guitar player on the planet, of our generation of musicians. But it was his openness that made him such an incredible resource, because I could say “I wanna try it backwards” and there were literally compositions that we did that with. Like there’s a song called “The Roe Effect” on Yesterday You Said Tomorrow, that was literally us taking a song where we wrote a really beautiful, melodic moment and thought, how can we shift it?, and figuring out what it sounded like when we played it backwards. Turning the changes around and moving the cells around. So having a partner like that, someone who was willing to experiment so much, was so much fun. And I look forward to continuing to play together. He’s not on all of these new records—I think he’s on Diaspora a little bit, which is the second one, but we will never not play together. We just did the Stretch Music Festival; his band played, and then he played with our band as well, so we’ll work together as long as I’m breathing. There’ll always be an interest to be able to do that. and also, what’s been great is, this year he started working with Esperanza’s band. We’ve all been friends for almost 17, 18 years now. I love him to death, and of course there are moments when I miss his presence just because of our friendship, but I’m glad that he’s doing what he needs to do for him. His record, Preverbal, is out March 24, and that’s an incredible document that people need to get as well.
You seem to have developed strong collaborative relationships with Sarah Elizabeth Charles and Elena Pinderhughes. What is it about them that pulls you in, that inspires you?
Well, Sarah—these two ladies are, honestly, they’re the hardest working people I know on the music side of this business. They won’t yield; neither one of them has any back-down, as it relates to the work. I produced Sarah’s last couple of records, and she hates when I say this, but it’s the easiest job I ever had, because she does so much. Her preventive maintenance as it relates to how she directs a band, leads a band, what she brings to the table in terms of compositional acumen and choices, her musicianship on every level, what she can do with her voice as an instrument, is really incredible. For Elena, I say this every night and I mean it from the bottom of my heart, I think if the record label folks stay out of her way and just allow her to say what her vision is musically, I think we’re gonna have a very difficult time remembering what the flute sounded like preceding her contribution. I think she has the capacity and the ability and certainly is hardworking and diligent and enterprising enough to be able to bring the instrument that far forward, to where that kind of perception of what it is that she’s doing will eventually exist. But also, she’s an incredible singer-songwriter, and writes some really great music with her brother Samora, who’s also one of the best musicians in this generation. There are a lot of incredible young and developing musicians, but these two young ladies for very different reasons are really captivating and sort of breathtaking talents and personalities. So with Sarah, it’s a lot more—we’re closer in age, and she’s been out here a little bit longer, so that dynamic is a little bit different than with Elena, which is more like…Sarah’s really close, but Elena, our relationship is really close because she’s on the road with me all the time and we help each other grow. And when Matthew left the band, she jumped in and created a different environment in terms of a lot of the music being focused around her voice as well. So I consider myself very fortunate to have these ladies around, and it’s really a lot of love, you know? For what it is that they come to do and how hardworking they are. I’m grateful.
You’ve got three albums coming out this year, so what can you tell me about the next two in terms of release dates, titles, stuff like that? And are they all musically similar, or, since you’re celebrating the centennial, are you exploring older jazz styles at all? Is there some Hot Five-style stuff coming?
All of them have moments that harken to and deal with conceptual elements of those eras, but I’ve never really been interested in, like, illuminating that facet of this music’s history in a linear way. You may hear Baby Dodds’ spooky rhythms from the Hot Five or Seven bands, or these types of recordings that you might hear—old Kid Ory recordings or Doc Cheatham recordings, things of that nature—they may show up in kenikeni or sangban rhythms on a dununba in a composition, as opposed to being played on the trap drums. so I like to grab those elemental things, but I never really put them in places where you would anticipate they would be. So with the next recordings you have a lot of that, but we’re also touching things that deal with all of the eras of this music, and all of the different forms of music that grew out of those things. The elemental things that built that music, but also all of the things that happened over the last century that grew out of those things. So the second document, which is probably gonna drop in the late summer, is called Diaspora. So the first record, Ruler Rebel, identifies and establishes who you’re listening to and the identity politics, musically and culturally, of the person you’re listening to over time and also in a sort of precise moment. The second record, Diaspora, that is who is being spoken to—and when I say diaspora, I really mean everyone—and with the Diaspora record, you will hear things that harken to Nordic pop music being mixed with rhythms from the Latin diaspora being mixed or coupled with melodic types that come from Polish folk songs that might come from harmonic movements that deal with Indian ragas and the rhythms of the French Caribbean or the Dutch Caribbean. And these are just a few examples. There’s stuff that harkens to traditional Japanese music. so this one is stretching a bit further in that it’s touching things that internationally are more present, as opposed to the first document that you’re hearing sort of being more of the elemental things that walk jazz into hip-hop and trap music and West African music and those things. So the second document is more wide-ranging, but it features more voices. Like, Ruler Rebel is mainly trumpet. You have the moments with Elena and Sarah, but they’re pretty sparse. With Diaspora, you have Braxton [Cook, saxophone] is all over that record, Elena is all over that record, Lawrence Fields plays a lot, you have different instrumentalists being featured in different ways. And then the last record is called The Emancipation Procrastination, which deals with more social and political issues—even though all of the records have them, this one is a bit more of a heavy document. And it stretches more in the traditional way, more closely related to Stretch Music, in that we’re playing the compositions but really it’s more about what’s going on in the improvising than just the melodic type and the environmental thing being the most important. So you have songs that are more closely related to “West of the West” on Stretch Music, or “Sunrise in Beijing” where they’re more fleshed out and less through-composed and more about us emoting and telling the story collectively, as opposed to being more track- and production-based.