The drummer Kendrick Scott was born in 1980, putting him squarely in the generation of jazz musicians who were formed by a wondrous combination of superb jazz education (Scott attended Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and then Berklee on scholarship), hip-hop, and exposure to every last classic jazz record in glorious reissue, across all styles. He famously has played with trumpeter Terence Blanchard, but he also has played on a series of brilliant records by his peers including, for example, the subtle, genre-bending vocalist Gretchen Parlato. His favorite records include classics by Wayne Shorter and De La Soul, J Dilla, and Joe Henderson.
His music, including a string of records credited to his band Oracle, is among the finest of its new kind: a new generation of contemporary jazz that is slick and funky without being vapid and “smooth”, that is soulful and accessible but also sophisticated.
The band, steady over time, helps to make things so fine on the new A Wall Becomes a Bridge. The keyboard player is the underrated Taylor Eigsti, along with bassist Joe Sanders, guitarist Mike Moreno, and woodwind player John Ellis. Additionally, joining the band on this outing is Jahi Sundance, adding turntable texture and flow. The group plays with sympathetic ease that fuses tricky rhythms with a truly unified sound. On “Windows”, for example, the rhythm is established by a tricky/funky acoustic baseline from Sanders, around which Scott plays a syncopated military snare pattern, all while the keys and guitar set up a wash of beautiful sound. Ellis’s horn comes in sounding wondrously like Wayne Shorter in his Weather Report mode, with tenor saxophone eerily shadowed by bass clarinet down low.
“The Catalyst” similarly begins with a woven groove from which a rich, distant melody emerges. This time it is Moreno’s guitar that leads the way, pairing with Ellis on a written melody, then launching into an inventive solo. Scott plays a controlled but busy triple-timed pattern beneath the tune’s surface, clipping the groove like tap dancer as acoustic bass and a combination of piano and electric piano mold a harmonic bed. Eigsti’s solo on an acoustic piano is pleasing and adventurous at once.
One secret of Oracle’s sound is that it’s built a sound model that is traditional rather than coming out of digital processing. Although Eigsti uses some Fender Rhodes electric piano, he is mostly featured on acoustic piano, just as Sanders is heard on stand-up bass. The voicings and arrangements the band employ, however, derive less from the Blue Note-era hard bop than more recent forms. “Don Blue” was composed by producer/bassist Derrick Hodge, who shared the rhythm section with Scott in Blanchard’s band and who has been a critical part of the recent collision of R&B and jazz that has been associated with pianist Robert Glasper (for whom Hodge has also played).
You can hear the ways in which it uses a “jazz band” to execute an arrangement that sounds different, with Moreno’s guitar playing both patterns and melody along with the horn, Eigsti thrumming his piano chords in waves rather than punching them bebop-style, and Scott cooking a pattern that syncs with melody rather than just keeping time. The opening wash from the turntables helps to establish the track as being from a different time, but ultimately it is the way the band works in sync that makes it sound up to the moment.
On “Voices”, Hodge adds one other element to the band’s soundscape, though it is subtle. Ellis is featured on bass clarinet, giving the tune a different, darker sound, and then Hodge himself adds shades of wordless vocals that are blended into the ensemble. The production goes from relatively spare to extremely full as Moreno plays a searching solo on the out-chorus while Scott simultaneously plays a thrilling drum solo in and through the full band’s power. (It’s a virtuoso drum moment as good as Steve Gadd’s at the end of “Aja” by Steely Dan, honestly.) Eigsti’s tune “Mocean” mixes Ellis’s soprano saxophone with overdubbed bass clarinet for yet another unique voicing. Here, the groove is also one-of-a-kind, a throbbing march beat that is also funky because of the way Scott swings his cymbals atop the pulse.
It is also notable that Scott covers the tune “Nemesis”, from pianist Aaron Parks’s quietly influential Blue Note debut Invisible Cinema (2008). The music on that recording was a relatively early example of how jazz musicians were finding new ways to combine popular forms—particularly hip hop and alternative rock—with jazz, but without sacrificing artistic intent. Parks’s melody and harmonic structure are slightly obtuse but appealing, and nothing about “Nemesis” suggests either “smooth jazz” or jazz standard forms. Oracle’s arrangement is thicker than the original, more layered with texture, and as Moreno solos above the groove it all seems almost orchestral, the sounds building upon each other in a density of feeling. Jahi Sundance makes himself heard here too in a lovely out-chorus that sizzles down to a low boil until it ends. Parks, for the record, was also a part of that great Blanchard band. Wow.
Oracle is capable of utterly straight jazz playing as well. The Eigsti ballad “Becoming” is a spare performance during which every member of the quintet seems to be listening with utter care. The song shaped with great harmonic care, and Ellis finds his way around the chords with slow ease—it never being clear where a written melody leaves off and the improvisation begins. “Archangel” is just as gentle at the start, with Eigsti and Moreno in acoustic duet, playing with folk simplicity as if they were on a 1970s session with the band Oregon, then joined by Ellis’s alto flute and Hodge’s voice again. The contour of the melody suggests the first version of Chick Corea’s Return to Forever (the one with Airto Moriera and Flora Purim).
Oracle, then, is a project that draws together all these strings from the past: the best fusion, the coolest modern jazz playing, influences from hip-hop and groove music, and a lyricism that shot through all the great American music from Aaron Copland to Lester Young, from Armstrong to Keith Jarrett—weaving these strands into something that isn’t hard to hear or too easy to forget. Kendrick Scott is a wonderful consolidator, and it feels just right that A Wall Becomes a Bridge is named with optimism.
In the present moment, it is easy to see division. You can see it in national and international politics, of course. You can see it in the culture here in the United States. You can see it between classes or cultures of people. And this is where “jazz” (maybe a word of division—let’s just say in creative music) offers a model in which borders drop away. A Wall Becomes a Bridge is as a good a way forward in this music as any. A pleasure and a tonic, smart and good for your body too, Kendrick Scott’s latest feels like a reason to believe.