Down Beat cover story, April 2010
During Jazz Fest in New Orleans last year, trumpeter Christian Scott was driving home after playing a late-night gig with Soulive when he noticed a car trailing him by the Claiborne Street underpass. At first he was afraid he was going to be the target of a roberry. When the sirens came on, he realized he was being pulled over.
In the moments that followed, he says, nine police officers drew their guns on him, and he was dragged from and thrown on the hood of the car. Not wanting to become the next Amadou Diallo, he suggested the officer get his ID out of his wallet while he kept his hands in the air.
“Oh, we got one of these type of niggers,” quipped a cop.
In the course of reacting to the use of that word, the slight, 25-year-old musician was told to shut up unless he wanted his mother to pick him up “from the morgue.”
Two years later, Scott is fighting back – and he’s using music to do it.
“It stands for Ku Klux Police Department,” he said, explaining “K.K.P.D.,” the title of the first track on his new album, “Yesterday You Said Tomorrow.”
The disc is Scott’s third album for Concord and maybe the first one on which he lives up to that ineffable “potential” his critics have pined for since his 2005 debut, “Rewind That.” That album polarized audiences, earning him a Grammy nomination on the one hand, and on the other, reviews like the New York Times’ accusation that his “toothless fusion … never coalesces into a worthy showcase for his considerable talent.”
Five years later, Scott’s music is anything but toothless.
“K.K.P.D.” is somewhat of a benchmark for what he’s done with the entire album, which is to use music the way Keith Haring used graffiti—as a soapbox.
He puts it a different way, of course.
“The impetus behind the [album] was to illuminate the fact that the same dilemmas that dominated the social and musical landscape of the ‘60s has not been eradicated, only refined,” he said from a London hotel room in November, summarizing a statement he was writing about the album for his team at Concord.
“The record seeks to change this dynamic by re-engaging these newly refined, pre-existing problems in our social structure in the same ways that our predecessors did.”
With an opening track about racial profiling and discrimination, a mid-point tune about Proposition 8 and a closing aria about the legacy of Roe vs. Wade, Scott, 27, meets the challenge he set for himself and then some.
His meticulously executed musical choices give the whole album an almost operatic quality, as dramatic tension unfolds between guitar and drums or piano and bass, while Scott’s unnervingly controlled trumpet sounds an alarm that either polarizes or lulls the other parts into a comforting common ground.
In retelling the story of his near-arrest in New Orleans, he says he constructed personas for each of the parts—Matt Stevens’ guitar alluded to a strain of country music popular decades ago in Tennessee, where the Klan was founded. In the song’s intro, a country-tinged melody brushes up somewhat disruptively against Jamire Williams’ West African drum rhythms before the lull of Scott’s horn trains your ears to disregard the earlier musical conflict.
This is all delivered with the hauntingly deep tone that initially caught critics’ attention back in 2005.
“I wanted to create a palette that referenced the sixties’ depth and conviction and context and subject matter and sound,” he said. “But in a way that illuminated the fact that my generation of musicians have had the opportunity to study the contributions of our predecessors, thus making our decision-making process musically different.
“That dynamic was then coupled with super-imposition of textures from our era, so that textures from my generation were sort of married with the ones from the past.
“And then the last part, which is probably of paramount importance, was that I wanted it to be recorded as if it was in the ‘60s.”
As Scott reads from the beginnings of a prepared statement over the phone, I think back to our first meeting some 18 months earlier, when he’d been shooting equally high as far as the ambition of his thoughts about the new music. “If I can get this [album] to be what I want it to be,” he’d said, “I feel like it can change the scope of everything that’s happening.”
Whether the album will affect the direction of new music in general remains to be seen. But what stood out two years ago as he chatted informally at a Thai place near his Brooklyn apartment is even more apparent now. Scott’s appreciation for the ability of music to tell stories and make social commentary is rare; and the way in which he follows through on those ideas is unique.
Scott’s company, like his music, has a comfortable intensity to it – an easy warmth that wins you over even when he’s on a mission to change your mind about something.
Though gracious and polite, Scott presents his point of view with the same confident authority he puts into his live shows. And even when what he says rubs folks the wrong way, his honest expression comes with a grain of erudite salt.
Take his position that the neo-classicist movement has such an over-bearing presence in jazz education and contemporary music that young players are discouraged from trying to move past it. Yes, that means he thinks it’s time to find a new, post-Wynton era.
But his new album is at its core a contemporary riff on be-bop and post-bop. And so was Marsalis’ self-titled 1981 release.
“He’s very diligent in trying to learn and do new things,” said McCoy Tyner, who featured Scott as a special guest on the road in 2008. “He’s considerate of the tradition of the music and what happened before and moving ahead to what’s happening in the future.”
Tyner’s right. The second track on “Yesterday You Said Tomorrow” is a cover of Radiohead’s “Eraser,” but its washed production – courtesy of Rudy van Gelder — gives it a sepia-toned sound that matches the gritty quality of the otherwise all-original album.
“I know he’s made some comments about certain things,” Tyner says. “He’s opinionated, but he has a right to have his own opinion. I give him credit for that. It’s reflected in his playing.”
Tyner and Scott met in 2006, when the young trumpeter was tapped for Tyner’s “The Story of Impulse.” Tyner heard something in Scott’s sound that reminded him of “what cats were doing in the ‘60s,” as Scott tells it.
Scott began bouncing ideas off Tyner, while Tyner shared with him new ways of thinking about harmonics. Scott was already preparing to record the material on “Yesterday You Said Tomorrow,” back then, and knew he wanted an analogue aesthetic – in Scott’s words, “visceral, dirty type of recording”—that would meld harmonic tension with some of the post-rock concepts that appeared on his 2007 release, “Anthem.” The time he spent with the pianist seemed to turn on a few lightbulbs on his creative path to the new release.
“I like that spirit he has, his dedication to music, he’s really in love with what he’s doing,” Tyner says. “He knows the traditions that exist in this music.”
In fact, Scott came up steeped in a world of musical traditions. After his mother, Cara Harrison, heard her grade school-aged son correctly identify the sound of a coin dropping to the floor of their New Orleans home as “F sharp,” she says she knew he was bound for a future in music, like so many others in her family.
It wasn’t long before most of Scott’s mornings started out with a wake-up call from his grandfather, Big Chief Donald Harrison, Sr., directing him to report to the kitchen table with his trumpet to perform “Bag’s Groove” and other tunes. If he missed a note, his grandfather, a folk singer and an important cultural force in the Mardi Gras Indian community, would sing the bar to Scott, who would play it back until he got it right. The next morning, the ritual would repeat.
The name Harrison is one of music royalty in New Orleans. Scott’s mother has been a singer all her life. His maternal grandmother played piano and clarinet. His uncle is the acclaimed saxophonist Donald Harrison, Jr. And his aunt Cherice Harrison-Nelson, runs the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame, a cultural center devoted to one of the most unique and influential elements of the city’s heritage.
Soon after he got his start in music, Scott began gigging regularly with his uncle, Donald. He attended NOCCA, New Orleans’ celebrated performing arts school, and went on to graduate from Berklee’s six year, double degree program in just two years.
Despite his background and strong ties to the Crescent City, Scott, who now lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is honing a musical identity that transcends region. A student of musical history and New Orleans culture, Christian Scott is focused nonetheless on making something new.
On tour with his uncle as a young teenager, Harrison showed him how to use warm air to create a fuzzy, Ben Webster-like tone. That idea fell dormant until one of his teachers, Clyde Kerr, echoed similar advice. Finally, one day on his birthday, he sat in the practice room at school trying to hear what tone he was going for. “I started thinking about trying to make the horn sound like my mom’s voice,” he says. “And that did it. Boom.”
“He means my singing voice,” says his mother.
The result is a tone that breathes warmth and emotion. His improvisation seems to bask in the tangle of what’s in his heart, while full compositions are often based on events of the past, whether historic or from his own life.
The apocalyptically dark “Anthem,” tackled the after-math of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in his 9th Ward neighborhood.
When he performed “Died in Love,” which he wrote in memory of a friend he lost to gun violence as a child, onstage at Newport in 2008 for a live album, he was moved to tears. Afterward, a handful of reporters questioned his professionalism for having cried.
“If I can’t be vulnerable in front of listeners, then this is not for me,” he later said.
Strong emotions like that probably have something to do with his affection for branching outside of the jazz tradition. Scott has recorded with Prince and performed with Mos Def and Jill Scott.
DJ Logic first saw him perform in New Orleans and was immediately taken by his open-minded approach to music, and his ability to reflect a love of jazz, hip-hop and music from other parts of the world in his writing. He invited him to sign onto the Global Noize project Logic was recording with keyboardist Jason Miles. The turntablist was moved by Scott’s emotive sound and the deep feeling that came through in his performances on two tracks. “I could hear that in his playing,” Logic recalled. “You could close your eyes and hear something, he would take me on a journey and I could just follow it.”
Director Mitch Glazer is hoping Scott’s playing has the same effect on audiences for “Passion Play,” a new film starring Mickey Rourke as a hardscrabble trumpeter who falls in love with a winged woman (Megan Fox) as he tries to dodge a gangster (Bill Murray).
Scott, who also appears in the film and on the soundtrack, has been enlisted to teach Rourke to appear to be playing the trumpet.
In the last few years, Scott’s music has also been tapped for the films “Leatherheads,” starring George Clooney, and the indie blockbuster “Rachel Getting Married.”
But Scott hardly seems star-stuck by these opportunities. He’s prone to staying up most of the night working, which may be one reason for the effervescent honesty that tends to flow from him. He’s decidedly more interested in the group dynamics of his band, which includes Williams on drums, guitarist Matt Stevens, bassist Kristopher Funn and Milton Fletcher on piano, than he is in the gigs with movie stars.
Christian almost seems to relish his glimpses into the dark side of human nature, whether on a personal or political level, and that may be because it incites his creative impulses in such a focused way.
After all, his mother, Cara Harrison says she always encouraged her children to use art to rise above hardship.
“My mother taught me if you see an injustice, you speak up,” she said. “You’re never supposed to lie down in the face of adversity. It’s about how you overcome it.”