Jazz Luminary Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah Enlists Berklee for Innovative New Album
Wearing a Cassius Clay jersey given to him by Muhammad Ali himself, Berklee alumnus and new school improvisational jazz luminary Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah B.M. '04 steps to the mic at the Red Room at Cafe 939 on September 25 with an intensity akin to a boxer right before a heavyweight bout: he’s dialed in with a focused look in his eyes that signals his intention to knock the listener out with his music—and that’s precisely what happens over the course of his set, which NPR streams worldwide as part of its series The Checkout: Live at Berklee.
Like Ali, Scott aTunde Adjuah grew up boxing and has wrestled with the juxtaposition of his given name—originally, Christian Scott—and his cultural heritage. And reminiscent of Ali, his talent in a circumscribed field has opened up doors to a more widespread leadership role.
Recording a 21st Century Jazz Record at Berklee
Scott aTunde Adjuah and his band kick off the Red Room set with the densely layered “Sunrise in Beijing,” the first track on the composer, trumpeter, and bandleader’s new Ropeadope Records album, Stretch Music. The engrossing, aptly titled album is a genre-blind approach to improvisational jazz, incorporating elements common to everything from Indian raga to indie rock or electronic dance music to hip-hop and trap music.
Scott aTunde Adjuah recorded more than an album’s worth of material—the “Stretch Sessions” will be released in three parts—earlier this year at Berklee’s new Shames Family Scoring Stage, one of the recording studios custom-built for the college’s new building at 160 Massachusetts Avenue in Boston. Scott aTunde Adjuah was the first non-student to record in the studios, and he says the new digs stack up to any of the professional commercial studios he has worked in in the past.
“If Berklee students are looking for professional-level stuff, they don’t need to go far because it is at the college,” he says. “I wouldn’t have recorded here if that wasn’t the case.”
Watch Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah and his band recording at Berklee:
Improvisational Jazz: There’s an App for That
Stretch Music’s release is accompanied by the unveiling of an app of the same name, an idea which Scott aTunde Adjuah first started thinking about while attending Berklee and listening to great records in the Media Center.
“I’d want to play along with the records but, say, Clifford Brown was on the record, so I couldn’t play at the same time he was playing,” Scott aTunde Adjuah says. The Stretch Music app solves that dilemma for the practicing musician, as Scott aTunde Adjuah recently told students at a Berklee clinic that he describes as an "informance."
“The play-along concept isn’t new, but what’s different about what we’re doing is you can remove or isolate any instrument that you want, mute, pan, slow it down, or speed it up without changing keys, create loops—pretty much anything you could think of doing in playing along, you can do with this interactive record,” Scott aTunde Adjuah says.
This kind of initiative is key in today's ecomonic climate, one that Scott aTunde Adjuah notes is “a scary reality” for musicians and artists because miniscule streaming music service payouts have decimated the chance for nearly any recording artist to earn a decent living wage from recordings alone. He challenges Berklee students to be similarly entrepreneurial, innovative, and diversified in their approach to music. For instance, Scott aTunde Adjuah also takes on scoring work, which was his primary focus when studying at Berklee.
Lead on, Leader
Scott aTunde Adjuah has been recognized as a brilliant musical talent for a decade or more, but now his leadership capacity is also coming into focus, both as band leader—no small task when working with a large band and some 270 dates on the road per year—and as an advocate for social justice. Scott aTunde Adjuah has often spoken out against police violence tied to racism—most notably in his song “K.K.P.D.,” which recounts Scott aTunde Adjuah’s own experience with police racism and which he performed during the Red Room concert for NPR—long before the issue reached widespread attention via several recent killings documented on video.
Scott aTunde Adjuah also works with the New Orleans nonprofit organization founded by his grandmother, the Guardians Institute. Growing up in the city’s lower ninth ward, Scott aTunde Adjuah explains, “I didn’t actually get a textbook in school until I was in ninth grade. The school board undereducates people because our economy is based on tourism so you have to have people that are comfortable in a certain [socioeconomic] station.”
The organization has donated some 45,000 books over the last few years, Scott aTunde Adjuah says, and held many reading circles, but beyond literacy, it aims to reframe the dialogue about school and learning in the community.
Nearly every public school in New Orleans has been converted to a charter school, and, Scott aTunde Adjuah says, “If you look at a lot of these charter schools, they’re just like precursors to a penal colony. They’re being taught how to obey, period. You can see these kids being turned off from school, and it’s heartbreaking. We let them know that they shouldn’t be admonished for wanting to be smart and have information.”
Stretching and Growing
To close out the set at Cafe 939, Scott aTunde Adjuah turns the stage over to fellow Berklee alumnus Lawrence Fields, whose stellar original composition “New Heroes” yields rows of bopping heads, the audience nodding in appreciation of the tune’s gripping groove payoff.
Watch the full The Checkout: Live at Berklee concert broadcast of Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah from NPR:
Likewise, while Scott aTunde Adjuah still dazzles on Stretch Music, he reserves some of the album’s most juicy spots for others in his band, such as the immensely talented rising flutist Elena Pinderhughes.
Both cases point to a degree of unselfishness that underlies Scott aTunde Adjuah’s increased maturity. Hip at 32, he’s no elder statesman, but he’s also no longer the new kid on the block, and he has clearly already recognized a core tenet of leadership that some supremely talented artists never quite figure out—namely, realizing that he shines brightest when he makes those around him stand out, too.