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Between Tradition and Innovation

Marc Rosenfeld Antunes
Staff Writer
mra337 [at] nyu.edu / @mcrantunes

Christian Scott’s Yesterday You Said Tomorrow is one of those landmark albums that will be remembered in future generations as a cultural monument. This is so because it is a cultural monument in the literal sense of the term, summing up a cultural heritage. And it’s easy to be excited about his three new albums coming out in 2012. The run over the 28th and 29th of October the quintet performing at the Harlem Stage in New York City demonstrated once again Scott’s forward looking perspective on music which is still solidly and harmoniously grounded in tradition.

Tradition is important in Scott’s music. After all, how do you know where to go if you do not know where you are coming from? And in this sense, Scott’s childhood in New Orleans is an important factor in defining what his music has slowly become. Many readers may have heard about his now famous differences with Wynton Marsalis on the basis of a struggle for innovation over tradition. But listening to his music, and in particular his new music, it is easy to conclude that in fact this conflict was not really so concrete and much more nuanced than it seems. “What we do is an extension of all of those musics that are also an extension from jazz”, said Scott in an afternoon talk I had with him. Really, Scott is only playing jazz, or even, as he quoted Miles, “tootin’ the blues”, because “jazz is an extension of the blues, let’s just be honest to ourselves”. Tradition and history are essential to the very art form of jazz. Notably much of the new music performed at the Harlem Stage was bent on looking back to African-American traditions of New Orleans, the environment in which Scott grew up. Some of the pieces throughout the second night featured those heavy poly-rhythms we have come to associate with a rich cultural history of Louisiana. In the albums coming up next year, look out for the sounds of traditional New Orleans and Mardi Gras Indians.

The run in late October was notably a reminiscence of Coleman. “In Yesterday You Said Tomorrow we were pulling from so many musicians in the 60s, and one person that go left out was Ornette.” And yet, this kind of attention to remembering those musicians of the past does not plague his music with that musty traditionalist aesthetic; “I’m not trying to redo what Ornette Coleman did,” he said about his performance. Ornette Coleman’s music revolutionized jazz. His innovation was unprecedented, and, obviously, Christian Scott appreciates it, since he integrated Coleman’s harmolodic theory into his gigs. Harmolodics is a difficult concept to define, just as Ornette’s music is difficult to grasp. Some have described it literally in terms of music theory, some have tackled the term conceptually, and some in terms of life philosophy. In any case, harmolodics is music free of any limitations, be they stylistic, harmonic, rhythmic or even tonal. In Harlem, some variation of that ideal that was heard throughout some pieces, which displayed a decidedly free aesthetic, as compared to the highly stylized definition we might be tempted to associate with the quintet. But it is not, in any case, surprising that Scott would want to use such innovative thinking as Coleman’s. And this innovative way of thought can also be seen in his willingness to exploit his theory of forecasting cells. Briefly, forecasting cells are a compositional method of hinting at the next chord. “Each generation is adding a tension”, he said, pointing to the minor third from early New Orleans or the tritone from bebop “the last two generations haven’t added a [new] tension”, and so Scott decided to look for something new through his forecasting cells.

But Scott’s music is one so heavily based on style and tradition, borrowing influences from Coltrane to Bob Dylan and to Jimi Hendrix. So how do you reconcile this thoroughly progressive direction in music with the value of tradition?

Scott’s said about why his quintet is interesting: “they don’t stop themselves from creating based on experience... I’m just going to play what it is that I’m feeling”. And in such simple terms, the boundary between ‘forward-looking’ and ‘backward-looking’ is completely blurred. “Tradition? In my own music?… It’s littered with it,” he said, “but maybe my way of approaching it is different”. He used the example of Jamire Williams’ style, on the drums in the quintet. “I can hear all kinds of shit… I hear Roy Hanes’s snap crackle, I hear Baby Dodds’ spooky rhythms… But he’s not thinking of those things while he’s playing, they’re just a part of who he is.” Simply put, “my playing is an extension of my experiences”. Scott’s music takes a step forward only with its other foot still down. Though it may not be so black and white, Miles made a point of never looking back, and Wynton made a point of remembering history. Why can I say that Scott’s music represents a cultural monument? Because it brings together these ways of thinking about innovation and tradition in an exciting, engaging way.

Engaging in a political way, too. The political engagement in the music that was played in Harlem and that will be heard next year is as explicit as ever. “If I speak about [something] in my music… it’s because there’s a problem that I feel needs to be fixed,” he said about why it is important for him to remain engaged, “…the music serves as a means for me to be able to talk about that issue with people.” And so, Scott notably wrote a four-part composition, “Fatima Aisha Rokero 400”, being released in 2012, on 400 women who were sexually abused by the Janjaweed gunmen in Rokero in Darfur in 2004. The sheer power of the piece, relying notably at points on straight ahead power chords, clearly expresses the strong sentiments Scott wants to convey against such treacherous acts. “I have a stage,” he said, “maybe I can do something about it.”

Overall, what you’ll hear in the material coming out next year as well as what was played in Harlem delivers that signature form including a chord progression with rich chords, a lead on the trumpet often doubled over by Matt Stevens’ clear lead sound, intense manipulation of dynamics, a solid and energetic rhythm section giving just enough room for whoever is soloing to explode with his own personal style. And yet his music philosophy is brought to further extremes. Now, Scott looks back all the way to New Orleans and the Mardi Gras Indians. And still, the quintet showed its mastery of the progressive style-less ideals of Coleman’s free music, although Scott said that harmolodics will not be heard in the material being released. Personally, I have always struggled with understanding what Scott’s music meant because of these two seemingly conflicting ideals of progress and custom. But really, Scott makes it so much simpler than it seems, putting jazz music into an ideal framework.

Marc Antunes is a student, writer, and critic. Follow him on his twitter.