Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah: Stretch Music
Stretch Music is the third album that the 32-year-old bandleader has composed using his “forecasting cells” technique. Framed by its creator as a means of structuring musical conversations by providing better context for improvisation, this method is the practical means Scott has used to further his goal of stretching the boundaries of jazz to cover as wide a spectrum of musical traditions and dialects as possible. Most immediately, that means that though his core training and vantage point is tied to jazz, his music strives to incorporate R&B, hip hop, and modern pop music into its vocabulary.
Such eclecticism is common to an entire array of artists in contemporary black music. Those who, like Scott, have approached the question of integrating music from different genres include Robert Glasper, Nicholas Payton, and newer players like Kamasi Washington––not even mentioning Badbadnotgood and more traditional jazz bands with a knack for pop interpretation like Mehldau and The Bad Plus. Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat form a complementary pole within pop music, and it’s no surprise that almost all of the men I’ve listed have all collaborated or at least covered each other’s work. What distinguishes Scott from these others, besides his love of engineering his own instruments, is the fact that he’s given his approach a systematic treatment.
At the core of this fairly loose and accommodating system is the concept of communication. Scott defines his music’s success or failure by the clarity with which it communicates emotions and ideas. Forecasting cells, the technical framework through which he works out collective improvisations, are supposedly meant to aid his bands in communicating specific sentiments through sound. In essence, they’re a way for Scott and his band members to engage in mutual criticism, forcing each other to reshape their playing to establish a more disciplined and rigorous form of mutual “discussion” during performances. The same spirit extends to Scott’s feelings on written or verbal criticism. He writes, in a manifesto of sorts for stretch music:
“In my view, a necessary step in the maturation of any artist is the development of the ability to be objective about someone else’s reaction to their work. I feel a wider vision and understanding of music, and oneself, can be gained if artists allow this concept to become part of their artistic process.”
Essentially, in order for a form of music to avoid stagnation, it has to keep a lively critical dialogue going, inclusive of artists and listeners. Incorporating lessons learned from what others feel about your music, Scott suggests, is an important step in self-improvement and in avoiding empty repetition. If music is about communication above all else, it makes sense to gauge the reactions of the people listening. Combined with Scott’s outreach efforts like an app designed to help people break his album apart, make remixes, and learn to hear and play music better and his work in high school music programs and tutoring work, and it looks like at least the outlines of a comprehensive project. It’s not making music and just responding to the decisions of the market as if they’re actually honouring the needs of real people, and it’s not music-as-academic-gesture that could make some important breakthrough but fail to communicate to anyone outside a tiny sphere.
It’s this dedication to working with and through other people and introducing new elements into his music and his band––note the young age of most of his collaborators here––that tempers his voracious eclecticism and makes it something more substantive than merely playing trumpet over a hip hop beat and calling it a new synthesis. This is not to say (at all) that those who have been less vocal or systematic about their approach have not achieved some significant successes, but just that it is useful to have a rough outline of a greater project where music, education, and thoughtful reflection can all be mutually reinforcing.
With all that said, there is not much to add in the way of a traditional review. Scott’s own playing has not advanced considerably past his work in 2012’s Christian aTunde Adjuah, which is to say that it remains excellent. On “Tantric,” he projects strikingly clear tones into space over snare-heavy drums. It’s certainly reminiscent of hip hop in its rhythms, but what marks this track as a standout is the way it evokes a vast space, mysterious without being alienating. Its the polar opposite of “West of the West,” which explores much knottier terrain, particularly with the aid of bassist Kris Funn. It might fit best into a “fusion” category, integrating electric guitars and a recognizable melody with a very dense beat laid down by the rhythm sections.
The person I noticed the most in the first ten listens or so is Elena Pinderhughes, a flautist who gets an “introducing” credit in the title of the album on iTunes. Though she’s been fairly well known for a flautist for long enough that that she’s hardly being introduced here, she makes a powerful impression. The first track, “Sunrise in Beijing,” sees her working a duet with Scott, and her playing certainly distinguishes Stretch Music from its predecessors more strongly than it would have. She fits in well, though I have difficulty describing precisely how, and I hope to gain more insight with further listens.
To conclude, I would only say that the rhythm section here is magnificent, especially the two drummers who are able to inject fascinating contrasts into the base of the rhythm itself, particularly on songs like “Tantric.” I’m not sure that this album will occupy as much of a place in my life as Christian aTunde Adjuah, especially since I have less time to listen to music, but I feel that this is a quality addition to Scott’s body of work and another exciting confirmation that he’s onto something significant in jazz. I hope he and his collaborators benefits from the recent surge of interest in the space between jazz and pop music.