Trumpeter Christian Scott fights for the future of jazz
By By Chris Barton
Dec 11, 2008 | 12:00 AM
When asked about the state of jazz, Christian Scott's mood sours. "The [stuff] is garbage," said the New Orleans-born trumpeter, speaking by phone from San Francisco, his voice sharp, direct. "I mean, you want the truth?"
It's perhaps surprising to hear such a terse assessment coming from a 25-year-old who earned a 2006 Grammy nomination in the contemporary jazz category for his debut album, garnered rave reviews for its arresting follow-up, "Anthem," and just released a live CD documenting a performance at the famed Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island.
But Scott has no qualms about expressing his feelings on being held hostage by the history of the art form, which he finds particularly limiting.
"Most jazz musicians, they're funny," said Scott, who comes to Los Angeles for a series of shows today through Saturday at Catalina Bar & Grill. "They write this music and they edit themselves so heavily. If they have a phrase that's in nine [beats per measure], they'll change it to four. If they hear electric guitar as a texture, they'll change it to a piano part. . . . I'm not willing to do that. If I hear it a certain way, that's the way it's going to be."
Mentored by his Uncle Donald Harrison, who in the 1980s played saxophone with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Scott has been immersed in the music since he was 13. He grew up studying at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts and the Berklee College of Music, and his sense of history, not least of which is the cheeky nod toward Miles Davis in releasing an album called "Live at Newport," is impeccable.
Although his first album, "Rewind That," established Scott as a talent to watch, it's last year's "Anthem" that confirmed that status. Suffused throughout by turmoil -- much of the album's recording was colored by the loss of Scott's family home in New Orleans' 9th Ward to Hurricane Katrina -- "Anthem" is a dark ride and one not in line with traditional jazz.
Structurally, the songs spiral woozily from one passage to the next, swirling through elements of soul, R&B and indie rock in the flourishes of guitarist Matt Stevens and keyboardist Aaron Parks. Drummer Marcus Gilmore even mimics a DJ's scratching on his snare for the menacing "Re:."
Throughout the album, Scott glides in and out of "Anthem's" forefront on trumpet, cornet and fluegelhorn, his playing full of taut, pensive energy. But for all its pent-up emotion, the music never approaches a catharsis until Brother J from late-'80s rap collective X-Clan closes the album with a series of biting verses.
Taken together, it's easy to imagine Grammy voters who honored Scott's earlier work scratching their heads.
"I really appreciate the way that [Scott] pursues his own vision, without much concern about the opinions of jazz traditionalists," said Parks, who released a challenging album of his own on Blue Note this year. "Neither of us is trying to re-create or 'preserve' anything. The way I see it, that kind of preservation [of jazz] . . . inevitably leads to a loss of immediate vitality. It becomes more about correctness, less about honesty."
It's that notion of "honesty" that most gets under Scott's skin. His voice quickens as he discusses what he calls a "quarrel" with Wynton Marsalis, who argued that Scott wasn't, in fact, playing jazz because his rhythm section didn't swing.
"I was basically like, if what you're saying is true, then Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Buddy Bolden, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, all those guys aren't jazz because they predate swing," Scott said. "All the [stuff] that they were doing in New Orleans is not jazz then, technically, if what he's saying is right."
Yet for all of Scott's talk about the music's past and his place in its present, it's the future of jazz that most concerns him.
"We're on a mission," he said. "We want to try and change the sound of all the stuff that's going on so these younger musicians don't have any excuses for why they can't be great. When I was coming up, the argument from the musicians was . . . 'Everyone's always playing "straight-ahead" music, and I don't know how I'm going to create with that palette.' . . .
"If someone actually gives somebody options, then what the hell is [jazz] going to sound like in 20 years?"