Pyramids, Russell Gunn’s newest album with The Royal Krunk Jazz Orkestra, came out last month on the Ropeadope label. We caught up with the trumpeter, composer, and bandleader to discuss the record, his artistic vision rooted in ancient Dogon knowledge, his musical identity and its ties to hip hop culture, as well as his quest for truth, meaning, and purpose. Read the interview below.
Nextbop: You describe your newest album, The Royal Krunk Jazz Orkestra’s Pyramids, as the second in a trilogy that began with 2016’s The Sirius Mystery. The music is veiled in hidden symbolism and lost ancient knowledge. Can you elaborate on the trilogy’s message and purpose, and tell us more about your artistic vision?
Russell Gunn: Yes, Pyramids is the second of a trilogy that did not start out as a trilogy. I did not know I was making a map until the map was complete. Past, Present, and Future are addressed here. After really examining all of the different perceived problems that Pan-Africans have, trying to decipher a solution that could conceivably unite all, I finally came to the conclusion that there is no way for that to happen. And the reason why is no one deals with roots. What do I mean? Like a bass player that never plays the root of a chord, the chord is in essence different because the root is different. If I write a C major chord and the bass player plays an A, it’s now an A minor chord. Same notes, but different sound. The only way for there ever to be any kind of unity is for all Pan Africans to learn historical facts from the root. The facts that dark skinned Africans were accomplishing miraculous feats before history was being recorded. Facts that people that looked just like them (us) are one in the same as most ancient historical figures and were the population of all historical cities of antiquity. None of this is to devalue any races’ contribution to humanity, but simply to serve as a base of understanding for Pan Africans that feel like they are playing developmental catch up with any other race. The knowing that the perceived achievement of being the “first black” anything is a slap in the face to ancestors that achieved more than we could ever imagine before time immemorial. Thus digging up the roots of the inferiority complex that is the main problem. As far as me using hidden symbolism, I am absolutely not. All knowledge is right in front of our eyes. It’s a choice not to recognize it, act on it, share it and live in it. In the summer of 2020, we will release The Sirius Mystery with the Royal Krunk Jazz Orkestra, which is the first part of the “map” (maybe some know that I released a small group version of that suite a few years ago), and in summer of 2021, the final part which is called Valley of the Dry Bones.
Nextbop: You are one of the few musicians leading a large ensemble today. What do you find so compelling about that format?
Russell Gunn: As a composer, the large ensemble allows me to convey a broader scope of musical intent. In my mind the large jazz ensemble is the symphony orchestra.
Nextbop: You’ve always had a very distinctive style and were one of the first jazz artists to incorporate hip hop heavily into his sound. Can you tell us more about your influences and how your musical identity has developed over the years?
Russell Gunn: My musical identity has always been the same. You can call it a hip hop sensibility, but do not get that confused with what is called hip hop these days. I come from a real cultural background that had multiple components to it: music (rap), dance (breaking), art (graffiti), language etc. It is in effect dead to the original practitioners. It has effectively been bastardized and turned into a clown show of misguided youth. That’s why you can see me in the street and think that I’m an old guy trying to be hip, but the fact is that I am what I always have represented, and anything looking like me is copying ME!
Nextbop: Who are some of the artists you admire most right now regardless of genre? What are you listening to these days?
Russell Gunn: I really love listening to and watching my girl Jazzmeia Horn. She is a clear representation of the idea of understanding the truth about our ancestry, music, and our business of music. And navigate it all while standing in her (our) truth. And most importantly sound amazing doing so.
Nextbop: In your most recent liner notes, you say that your name is Mtafuta Ukweli, which means “Truth Seeker” in Swahili, and you describe a newfound quest for purpose, knowledge, and truth. Can you tell us more about your journey towards enlightenment, and what have been your main inspirations, whether individuals, experiences, books or others?
Russell Gunn: My story goes like this. I was having a random conversation with Hélène Faussart from the sister singing duo “Les Nubians” late one night in Atlanta. We were discussing having ancestry traced through DNA. I had indeed recently had my DNA tested and it came back connected to the West Africa region now known as Guinea-Bissau. I told her that, and she thought that was odd because she thought I looked more like the brothers in Mali. I listened closely because although she is technically French, she is from Cameroon. Admittedly I didn’t know anything about Mali except that Timbuktu was located there somewhere. As I started digging into Mali, I started learning about the Dogon people, the absolutely most amazing thing I had ever come across, and their knowledge of Star systems invisible to the eye, and telescopes until very recently, their symbols for matter which are the exact same as what scientists now call “string theory” (again “first black anything”?), their myth (or maybe not) of creation, and their unmistakable similarity to Egypto-Nubian systems. So not to go on forever, let’s just say that my rebirth started there. So of course I ran out and bought 3 books: The Sirius Mystery, The Pale Fox, and Sacred Symbols Of The Dogon. I must add that I don’t expect everyone or anyone to take what I have to say as anything they would want to follow up on. I just know that in this world now for me, I have been given this purpose and I will live and die trying to get those that need to know, the direction to deal with aforementioned “roots”.
Nextbop: Do you have any advice for the young musicians out there or those struggling to find meaning in their lives?
Russell Gunn: I was born in Chicago, grew up in East St. Louis. I never would have ever imagined having any kind of real meaning to my life (besides keeping my children alive and ready for the world that awaits them). But I was lucky. I found music and music has taken me all over the globe and allowed me to see the world with different glasses. I’ve been to West, North, East and South Africa. I’ve been to Mexico, Bahia Brazil, Spain, Japan, the Philippines, Australia, Italy, etc… All places with indigenous Dark-skinned people populations. Yes all of them… I’ve seen with my own eyes the obelisks stolen from Egypt and standing in front of the Vatican, and in France. I’ve been in the Louvre and The British Museum and seen with my own eyes the theft of historical facts. I’ve also seen with my own eyes King Tut’s golden mask and his other belongings and the sarcophagus of Akhenaten at the Cairo Museum. So it’s up to me to let those that don’t know, know what’s happening. If I have any advice for anyone trying to find meaning, it is to immediately kill your inferiority complex, understanding no body is the first black, white, or green anything. Find historical facts, check the timeline, and go from there.
Nextbop: As a nod to Pannonica, if you had three wishes, what would they be?
Corny as it sounds my first wish would most definitely be Pan-African Unity. Second wish would be the ability to travel with my band and family and friends throughout the entire continent of Africa, and the rest of the world, but Africa would be the icing on the cake. Thirdly would be for my hair to grow back, Lol!
Pyramids, the new album by The Royal Krunk Jazz Orkestra, lead by trumpeter Russell Gunn, is out now via Ropeadope Records.
Sébastien Hélary co-founded Nextbop in 2009 with the objective of introducing modern jazz music to a younger generation of fans. Aside from music, his other main obsession is food, particularly ramen and other Japanese delicacies.