Serious Musician, Hip-hop Fan, Stylish Dude: Christian Scott, Jazz Star for Today

Scott, performing at the upcoming Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat, represents jazz’ place in popular music, 'which is better now than it used to be,' he says

US's trumpeter Christian Scott performs at the Five Continents Marseille Jazz festival, in Marseille, southern France, Tuesday, July 26, 2016.
Claude Paris / AP

"We have about 25 minutes. After that I have another interview,” says trumpet player Christian Scott at the beginning of the interview. This is a bit surprising. Such time constraints are something one usually encounters in interviews with more renowned pop and rock musicians. It doesn’t happen with jazz players, other than in exceptional cases.

Thus, the length of an interview with a superstar such as jazz pianist Chick Corea will be defined in advance. A few years ago, when I interviewed Roy Haynes, one of the greatest jazz drummers, who had turned 84 (he is now 92), he declared every five minutes that our time was running out. But these are the exceptions. One of the advantages of interviewing jazz musicians is that you, the interviewer, have all the time in the world. There is no lineup of other journalists waiting behind you.

However, in Christian Scott’s case it turns out that there is one, and actually this is not much of a surprise. Scott, who is 34, is not a superstar, but he represents the contemporary aspect of jazz and particularly its place in the wider setting of popular music. Within it, not beside it. In recent years, the boundaries between popular black music, mainly hip-hop, and the advanced areas of contemporary jazz have become blurred. A good example is what’s happening around Kendrick Lamar, the most prominent contemporary rapper. There is a lot of live jazz in his music, and the players performing it, such as sax player Kamasi Washington and bass guitarist Thundercat, have become well-loved and sought-after musicians, darlings of the global indie nation, which normally has no interest in jazz.

Christian Scott playing at Granada Jazz festival, November 7, 2013.
Jose Nieto

Scott, who was part of the ensemble that accompanied Thom Yorke in his Atoms for Peace project, is part of this new current. In contrast to earlier jazz trends, it doesn’t view itself as dissociated from what is happening in popular American music. “I’m happy to be coming to Israel, bringing the new sound of America,” says Scott. The new sound of America? When was the last time jazz players referred to their music this way? When did they see themselves as the ambassadors of an encompassing contemporary musical message? Indeed, Scott’s music relates, for example, to Trap, the newest subgenre of American rap music. Scott looks like a rapper in his photos. See the cover of his new album “Ruler Rebel” – a frontal view displaying a bare upper body, muscular and ornamented, an in your face look.

Rolling Stone, GQ

It’s no coincidence that Scott recently gave an extensive interview to Rolling Stone, which doesn’t usually write about jazz musicians who aren’t Miles Davis, and also features in the fashion magazine GQ. It’s not by chance that Scott is on posters for the Red Sea Jazz Festival, which runs in Eilat August 27-30. The festival dispensed with his bare chest on his new album cover and went for a picture of Scott and his trumpet from his earlier 2015 album “Stretch Music.” Scott appeared in Tel Aviv close to the release of that album, and reviews of his excellent performance in these pages recommended that he be brought to the jazz festival in Eilat. Thankfully, this has happened and it will be interesting to hear him play his new material, included in the two albums he’s released over the last year (a third one is due in the coming months).

Scott calls the three 2017 albums The Centennial Trilogy, referring to the 100 years since the first jazz recording was made, in 1917. He is obviously not referring to the specific first recording, which reflected race relations in America at the beginning of the 20th century – it was made by an all-white ensemble called The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, even though the true pioneers of jazz were black.

Those pioneers – Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Joe “King” Oliver, Kid Ory – are people Scott pays tribute to, but he does so in a totally contemporary manner. In fact, it’s hard to discern the sources Scott draws on, the elements that derive from the founding fathers. “That’s true, only musicians can hear it,” he says. “If I play this music to Joshua Redman [one of the most prominent saxophone players in contemporary jazz], he’ll hear Sidney Bechet and Kid Ory. Most listeners wouldn’t identify it. But if I’d only imitate the great musicians of the past it would be boring. There’s no sense in that. That’s the problem with most tributes to jazz. They try to recreate something that can’t really be recreated. I could play “West End Blues” [one of the seminal pieces of early jazz, most famously performed by Louis Armstrong], but it wouldn’t sound as good as he played it, since he was expressing himself. He wasn’t imitating anyone. The best way to pay tribute to great musicians of the past is to be yourself.”

From West Africa to Trap

When asked what made him incorporate elements of Trap, the latest rage in the hip-hop world, into his rich, layered jazz, Scott says: “Trap’s rhythms. In fact, this isn’t something new. These are beats from Western Africa which have gone through a process of Americanization. It’s important to me that the young generation, the Trap audience, is aware of these roots.”

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But how will they know this? You play instrumental music. You don’t specifically say, Pay attention to these connections.

“They’ll hear it. If the West African beat is played on acoustic drums and then on electronic drums, sounding all of a sudden like Trap, they’ll understand that there’s a link there. They’ll realize it’s the same music. People have good ears and they’re smart. They hear and understand things. I don’t like to lecture in my music. I simply show things, draw the lines and make people think.”

The affinity to contemporary hip-hop is just one of the elements making Scott’s jazz sound like present-day music. When asked about this he says: “Jazz was always the music of now. That’s its essence. People simply forgot that because of what’s happened to jazz in recent decades.” He is referring to a neoclassical movement that arose in the 80s, aiming to return to the bebop and hard bop style of playing. “Due to the influence of the neoclassical movement, people started thinking that jazz should always sound like the kind played in the ‘40s and ‘50s,” says Scott. “But the real tradition in jazz is the search for your own voice, for your way of expression and communication.”

“We became confused. We forgot what the true tradition was,” he continues. “You can’t be relevant if you try to sound like someone else. If you keep looking back you’ll obviously think that you can’t create beauty like, for example, John Coltrane. A curious sense developed, according to which the best jazz had already been recorded, that the best albums had already been released. Many people feel this way. From my perspective this is illogical. I think that what is created nowadays is no less good, in fact it’s better than much of what was done in the past.”

Can you explain why your approach, which sees jazz as the music of the present, is becoming more prevalent in recent years?

“There always were musicians who thought that. We simply do it our way, in a world that is changing rapidly. What you’re talking about is a product of globalization, of the internet. Who knows what Charles Mingus would have created if there had been Google in his days?”