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Judging by titles alone, it would be easy to mistake Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s recent projects as projects intent on looking backwards. In 2017 he released three EPs collectively known as The Centennial Trilogy, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s “Livery Stable Blues,” considered to be the first jazz recording. Adjuah’s latest album, Ancestral Recall (Ropeadope), would appear to reach even further back, dredging up ancient musical memories from some time-shrouded past.
Anyone who’s followed the career of the New Orleans-born trumpeter, though, knows that he’s insistent on forging a path into the future — especially since the radical departure taken on his genre-delineating 2015 album, Stretch Music.
In Adjuah’s mind, both ideas always co-exist simultaneously. In defining his approach to the music, he brings up the Ghanaian word “Sankofa,” a notion often represented by a bird with its feet facing forward and its head turned back. “He’s dragging the past with him as he’s moving forward,” Adjuah says.
“I think we’re at a very important cultural moment, when it’s important that we have an accurate appraisal of what has actually happened in the past and that we show the right amount of reverence and respect to that, but that we also look forward and try to create things that tap into the past but don’t use that as a means of self-segregating or excluding people from the music. For what this music is going to grow into, you can hold onto the tenets and values of what has happened in the past and still build new traditions.”
“Culture” is a word that recurs often in conversation with Adjuah, reflecting his notion that jazz isn’t an academic music but a living artform vital to daily existence and contemporary experience. He’s been ahead of the Trump-era curve in using his music to protest social issues, spurred in part by the devastation wreaked upon his hometown by Hurricane Katrina and, more perniciously, the response of the Bush administration. Yesterday You Said Tomorrow, from 2010, featured a song in response to Prop 8, California’s ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage, as well as the pointedly titled “K.K.P.D.” Despite the injustices his music confronts, however, he resists anger in favor of a more embracing philosophy.
“I feel like we’re staring down the barrel of this gun where we have to make a choice about how we want to move forward as a people,” he says. “We all have moments where we’re frustrated or angry, but that doesn’t mean that we always have to be disagreeable to each other. People go through enough on their own; they don’t need your help beating them up. It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, Asian, rich, poor, middle class; if you live long enough you’re going to endure some stuff, period. It’s important to be clear about the fact that there are better ways.”
Despite his outspokenness, Adjuah prefers offering hope to decrying the present, though he recognizes the obstacles such an approach faces. “I’ve always found it curious as hell that anyone who says that there’s another way to do things, that we should love each other, always gets exterminated. We’ve seen what the world looks like when you build societies based on creating value distinctions and differences. It’s obviously going to be easy to keep people fighting if you make the thing that they’re fighting about the one thing that will never change, which is that we’re all different. So it becomes about trying to build from a different space, flipping that idea on its ear and asking what the world might feel like if we finally recognize that we’re more beautiful together.”
The idea that gives Ancestral Recall its title stems from New Orleans’ Black Indian tradition (popularly known as Mardi Gras Indian, a name that Adjuah vehemently rejects), in which Adjuah was recently named a third-generation chief. In that honor he follows in the footsteps of his grandfather, legendary Big Chief Donald Harrison, Sr., and his saxophonist uncle, Donald Harrison, Jr., in whose band Adjuah had some of his earliest experiences in front of an audience.
In the Black Indian worldview, Adjuah explains, “ancestor” refers not only to those who’ve come before, but to those who will follow in the future. “You’re taught that you are your grandfather and you are your grandson,” he explains. “You’re taught that it’s more than the color of your eyes that’s written when you’re being created here. That’s part of the reason the music sounds the way it does; it feels like it’s struggling between the past and the future, like the past and the future are either marrying each other or fighting, and the sound that we create exists in the middle of those things.”
[caption id="attachment_19749" align="alignleft" width="683"] Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah: “I feel like we’re staring down the barrel of this gun where we have to make a choice about how we want to move forward as a people. We all have moments where we’re frustrated or angry, but that doesn’t mean that we always have to be disagreeable to each other.”[/caption]
That tension has always been central to the identity of New Orleans, so it’s no surprise that it has found such strong purchase in Adjuah’s imagination. “New Orleans is a very specific ecosystem,” he says. “It’s a group of people that historically have a really strong collective cultural memory. When you’re learning to do something like play creative improvised music in that context, you then have to learn in a very specific way. The values that exist around this music in New Orleans are light years away from what exist in other spaces where they teach you jazz.”
Adjuah, then just Christian Scott, had the benefit of being mentored by his uncle, Donald Harrison, Jr., who was a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the 1980s before leading his own acclaimed bands. Through Harrison, Adjuah was taken under the wing of elders like Danny Barker and Doc Cheatham, vital links to the first-generation pioneers of the music. “When I was small, people like Danny Barker would tell me that jazz is a synonym for blues and [vice versa], that jazz was just blues that learned to speak all languages.”
The young trumpeter took that lesson to heart, learning to speak jazz in the vernacular of his own generation and era, folding in accents of hip-hop, electronica, trap music and indie rock. When he approached TheCentennial Trilogy in 2017, he had not just the origins of the music in mind but a century’s evolution on top of it. “It made sense to me to try to illuminate the synergy between something that Kid Ory might have recorded in 1937 and something that [rapper] Juvenile or these guys from Cash Money [Records] might have recorded in 2007,” he says. “When I listen to a rapper like Juvenile or a poet like Saul Williams, I feel the jazz in what it is that they’re doing. Those are not different cultures to me.”
For Adjuah, hip-hop culture offers a key to unlocking the potential of jazz, which he says is misunderstood as a codified genre. “The way that people read the whole jazz thing is kind of inaccurate,” he says. “Everybody understands that rap is a very specific [form of music] that exists in hip-hop culture. People look at jazz as if jazz is rap, but jazz is actually hip-hop. It’s the overlying cultural banner that everything else extends from.”
Adjuah was ushered into the mainstream of that culture when he received a full scholarship to Berklee College of Music, where he studied under jazz greats like Gary Burton. It wasn’t a drastic change, as he’d already studied formally at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. The Boston institution simply supplemented the traditions that had been instilled in him at home with new mentors who were probing the music’s potential.
“Berklee has this ability to tap the folks that are still pumping blood into the system. There’s a healthy mix on the faculty of people who have been in these industries for a very long time and young, developing folks that are going into different environments and looking for new ways of approaching sound and music. There’s a level of curiosity and exploration that’s allowed to exist without being stamped out or [labeled as] wrong.”
Adjuah’s breakthrough came with the 2006 release of his Concord Records debut, Rewind That. The album announced the arrival of a major new voice on the jazz scene with a decidedly modern sound, albeit one that already reflected his wide-ranging influences. Six years later Christian Scott made his first move toward a total transformation with the release of Christian aTunde Adjuah, which appended the names of two cities in Ghana to his birth name — “a name completion, not a name change,” as he told me in a 2012 interview.
At the same time, he was already eagerly searching for a new identity for his music as well. That album, he said, represented “my attempt to fuse what I’ve been doing with music over the last 10 years with different musical vernaculars that existed before the last century of music … and try to create a hybrid sound of things old and new.”
That effort came to fruition with his next release, Stretch Music, which gave his hybrid music a name. Unlike some efforts to break with “jazz” as an outdated or even offensive label, Adjuah continues to embrace the word jazz, simply placing Stretch Music under its overarching umbrella. Stretch Music, as he taught it to students in April during his annual residency at Harlem Stage, “tries to find the synergy between multiple cultures of music at the same time.”
[caption id="attachment_19751" align="alignleft" width="1024"] Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah: “New Orleans is a very specific ecosystem. It’s a group of people that historically have a really strong collective cultural memory. When you’re learning to do something like play creative improvised music in that context, you then have to learn in a very specific way."[/caption]
That place where past and present, acoustic and electric, tradition and innovation all meet feels like a physical place on Ancestral Recall, a ritual or ceremonial space that resembles at once a lush ancient forest and a sleek spacecraft cruising the cosmos. Despite playing drums on five of the album’s dozen tracks, Corey Fonville was surprised by the finished product. “Recording with Christian, I had no idea what the record was going to sound like,” the drummer says. “It was just me in the studio, and Christian may have an idea for a song, but it’s almost a rough draft. He’ll throw different ideas at me, let me hear something that he’s working on in his computer; it almost shouldn’t make sense but some way, somehow, it turns into a classic.”
The music that results from that unorthodox process is dense with layers of sound, crafted largely by Adjuah himself from fragments of acoustic instruments (Elena Pinderhughes’ flute, Logan Richardson’s saxophone and, most vitally, Ghanaian percussionist Weedie Braimah’s rhythms), cut, pasted and woven into a tapestry of synths and electronics.
Adjuah journeys through that thicket of sound with his trumpet, a traveler exploring mysterious terrain with the confidence of an archeologist assured of finding treasure with every dig. On several tracks he’s joined by the vibrant, pointed poetry of Saul Williams, who Adjuah describes as “if James Baldwin and Miles Davis had a love child.”
Williams, a pioneer of the slam poetry movement who also recently recorded with saxophonist David Murray, is the rare collaborator able to keep pace with the velocity of Adjuah’s sonic thought. The two share plans for a co-led project to be unveiled soon. “From the first moment I was exposed to Saul Williams, I literally found any means to be around him, to hear his music, to find his writing,” Adjuah says. “He’s light, and I and all of my friends are drawn to that light.”
Adjuah strives to be that kind of locus himself, a meeting point for collaborators from a variety of backgrounds, generations and stylistic approaches. To an extent it comes naturally, he says; unlike many of the artists he’s worked with, he doesn’t don a persona when he steps onstage.
“For the overwhelming majority of artists that I’ve worked with,” he says, “folks like Prince or Thom Yorke of Radiohead, they transform into who they need to become to be able to express things that maybe in their own personal lives they have trouble with or fear expressing. My experience is the complete opposite. The person you see on the stage is exactly the same as the person that you engage with off the stage.”
In essence, that’s perhaps the quality that Adjuah sees as his most important contribution to the current cultural dialogue, at a time when reality is increasingly indistinguishable from its virtual alternatives. “If you go to spaces like Instagram where most people are relating to each other in this online nebula,” he says, “a lot of it is projecting these highly curated moments that have nothing to do with people’s actual experience. What helps snap folks out of those moments is when they go to hear something musically or see something artistically that is coming from truth-tellers. It’s based in sincerity, and that’s part of what we bring to the table.”
Stretch Music, Adjuah continues, is his way of practicing sincerity, of being true to who he is in the moment in which he lives. But it also means speaking truth to people in language that they’ll understand.“If I walk up to someone on the street and say, ‘It’s a bully day today, sir!’ — they’re gonna look at me like I’m crazy. That’s not how people speak in 2019. Am I a bebopper? You’re fuckin’ right I am. That’s the most important musical language for me. But I’m born in 1983, and my experience is vastly different than Charlie Parker’s. Articulating myself in that language musically in this moment isn’t going to carry much weight. At the end of the day I have to be real about my experience and my timeline, because people can smell the insincerity on you.” - Shaun Brady