A common criticism facing jazz today is that it is being left in the past — a problem undertaken (and commodified) by the obnoxiously popular “La La Land,” a film that likely makes most actual purveyors of the genre want to smash their heads in. But the criticism isn’t unfounded, and it’s one that a new generation of jazz musicians such as Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah are tackling head on.
“I think part of the issue with creative improvised music in the last 30 years is that it essentially has a communication problem,” Adjuah explained in an interview. “Jazz doesn’t listen anymore — it’s very hard to build audiences, to captivate and create meaningful, palpable experiences for listeners if you’re not willing to acknowledge the fact that they have a perspective.”
Adjuah, who first played Yoshi’s in Oakland at the age of 13 with his uncle Donald Harrison, returned for two sold-out shows Thursday and Friday night with his touring ensemble. The group performed in support of Adjuah’s release “Ruler Rebel,” an extension of the “stretch music” concept laid out in his 2015 album.
“Part of what we’re interested in doing musically is creating a space that is essentially genre-blind — a cultivation of other forms of music or other cultures’ vernaculars, their modes of operating in terms of how they create a sonic environment,” Adjuah said. “Reevaluating the way that we communicate means that we have to go about the business of learning the way that other people communicate.” In his music, that means incorporating drum machines and Southern trap beats, or African and Caribbean influences into conversations about civil rights, race and culture.
Adjuah also abjectly refuses to allow the contexts and meanings of his compositions to fade into the technical virtuosity the ensemble presents during its performances — he converses with words as well as with music, spending minutes building the audience’s understanding of what he is trying to communicate with a song.
Often, the experiences he draws from are charged and emotional, such as a dehumanizing racially-driven experience with a police officer, or a beat that would otherwise only be heard at the meetings of the tribe Adjuah is a member of in Louisiana.
Adjuah’s musical skill is unquestionable, as is that of his ensemble, the members of which he introduced individually — and extensively — during set. He also ensured the spotlight fell squarely on their solos by stepping to the rear of the stage as they played. But it was the willingness of the group as a whole to engage with jazz as a language deserving — and requiring — expansion that made the performance so engaging to watch.
“I do not build musical environments that harken on the notion that my perspective is the paramount viewpoint,” Adjuah said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to play music in so many contexts that it’s sort of obliterated the notion that there’s one way to do it.
For Adjuah, that’s meant everything from developing an app for “Stretch Music” that allows users to change instrument levels and participate in the music to a technique called the forecasting cell. Adjuah explained it as a new formulation of the typical jazz call-and-response statement, a technique which acts harmonically as a “musical question” that interrogates the other improvisers on stage in an attempt to elicit more thoughtful and profound answers.
Adjuah explained that motivation in a briefly meta deconstruction of the interview itself — “The tagline that the human being employs when they want to learn more about something is a question.” He uses musical, harmonic questions to vet improvisers, to draw more meaningful answers, all within an ever-expanding repertoire of musical styles and influences.
Yet even after a blisteringly visceral performance at Yoshi’s, he still felt the push for more — “This horn has a smaller bell,” he explained after the show. “I was really pushing it. It was like I was in seventh gear and the horn was in fifth.” Flutist Elena Pinderhughes carried a similar tone of self-criticism after the show — but all of the artists can rest assured that for the audience at Yoshi’s, their performance was one that spoke dramatically to the shining future of the genre, and their place within it.