[17 December 2007]
It seems like a legitimate idea to combine jazz with hip-hop, and there is a significant group of musicians working toward that end. (Check out pianist Robert Glasper’s outstanding In My Element.) Then why not also bring into jazz elements of today’s other hip sound, indie-rock? This is not common, likely because indie-rock is constitutionally against the kind of virtuosity and complexity that jazz musicians exude. The indie scene typically values texture over harmony, simplicity or even primitivism over sophistication. There are countless exceptions, but this is at least one core reason why Branford Marsalis is unlikely to guest on an Iron & Wine album or why jazz musicians don’t often cover Arcade Fire songs.
Christian Scott, a 22 year-old New Orleans trumpeter has given it a bit of a go on his second album. Perhaps inevitably, it is a partial failure—particularly as it aspires to incorporate a share of hip-hop as well as rock. But it is also a partial success. Half-empty or half-full? Perhaps you should decide.
Anthem is dark-toned. This is no surprise, given that it was written and performed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the government to sufficiently rescue Scott’s hometown. The textures are big: fat rock drums, crunching guitars, spacious piano sound, and a Miles Davis-tinged middle register trumpet that crackles with jazz but seems equally likely to brood like a good indie-rocker should. There are passages that play like jazz (“Remains District” and “Katrina Eyes”, both minor melodies given a snap of backbeat) and others that jump with a groove (“Re:”). There is also a final reprise of the title track that is given a spoken word overlay that brings home the music’s political themes on a hip-hop tip. Much of the music is despairing, and understandably so.
The most typical tunes feature prominently the guitar of Matt Stevens and keyboards from Aaron Parks, also both young and talented musicians. Stevens sounds like a rock guitarist on most tunes, scruffing up the atmosphere with plenty of tone. Parks takes the disc’s most adventurous solos (making, by the way, his second appearance on a scathing reflection on Katrina, the other being Terence Blanchard’s recent recording). Stevens and Parks are given the role of making the tunes’ Big Gestures: pounding and repeated octaves on piano (“Anthem (Antediluvian Adaptation)”), a Fender Rhodes bass line (“Cease Fire”), distorted shards of arpeggio (“Dialect”), or crunching rock chords (“Void”). Scott rides above the storm of sound that comes from his rhythm team (also featuring Marcus Gilmore on drums and two bass players), playing trumpet that is usually open and floating and often harmonized by tenor player Walter Smith III. This is the formula that gives Anthem its indie-rock cred: loud backgrounds on which are placed intense whispers of voice. It’s emo-jazz, you might say.
The downside of this blend is a certain sameness on the material that is more explicitly jazz. “The 9” is a hard bop groove set to Gilmore’s snap-sharp snare attack, and “Remains District” vibes much the same way. “Cease Fire” has a cool groove, but the melody as stated by Scott and his sax player seems as anonymous as any bluesy set of licks can be. When Scott solos on this tune, he squeezes out attractive sounds, but are they really much different or more profound than what, say, Chris Botti gives you on his smooth jazz sides?
And that is the more problematic element of this music. Indie-rock can be folkily pretty but it achieves this with its Dylanesque edges intact. Scott, with his liquid tone, cannot escape sounding a little too much like Jazz Lite, despite his serious intent. “Like That” sits atop a lush bed of Rhodes and lightly strummed guitar, with a pocket backbeat as clean and neat as anything this side of Chuck Mangione. It’s pretty but in the easy way that doilies and little girls and poodle puppies are pretty. Anthem has many more distinctive sounds to offer and one tune should not make it all seem like mush, but “Like That” is a reminder to the listener that much of what makes Anthem distinctive along the way is the distinctive production work rather than the substance of Christian Scott’s own composing and trumpet-playing contribution.
If this “emo-jazz” represents his conception of how a jazz group can sound today, we might be eager to hear the sound developed and raised to the next level. I think you will like the sound of most of the disc—its edge and mournful punch—but you will also wish that the tunes built to grander, freer, more interactive climaxes. This young man was just 22 when he made Anthem, so perhaps its wrong to expect him to have the fire and improvisatory guts of Sonny Rollins or even Chris Potter. But even on the best tunes here (such as the throbbing opener “Litany Against Fear”), he is outplayed by his bandmates Stevens and Parks.
Christian Scott has time to work out his art, and Anthem is a step in an interesting direction. May he develop his own harder, rougher edge so that, down the line, some indie-rock or hip-hop act wants to sound more like him.