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April 23, 2010

Shortcuts—Christian Scott, Yesterday You Said Tomorrow

Christian Scott’s latest album, Yesterday You Said Tomorrow, is intended to provoke. Not only in the visceral way—the kind that comes from kicking off an album with a piece called K.K.P.D. (Ku Klux Police Department)—but in more cerebral ways as well. We are called upon by Scott to consider the album in regard to the ’60s, both with the brevity characteristic of that decade’s jazz recordings and the social and political agenda which that music attempted to address. So come song titles like “K.K.P.D.,” or “American’t,” or “Jenacide,” all in some way challenging current conceptions of U.S. race relations.

Though only 26, Scott is in the business of producing serious music drawing from serious social ills. Yet even if Scott’s social message seems highfalutin, his music surely isn’t. It was with a great deal of pleasure, then, that I enjoyed listening to YYST, which is Scott’s most fully realized, listenable, and mature record to date.

Scott so far has garnered acclaim for what critics perceive as genre bending. I don’t buy this so much. True, you will often hear sideman Matthew Stevens’ guitar strum a little too aggressively to be at home on a Marsalis record, or hear the excellent Jamire Williams break into the tastiest of beats that would be welcome in many funk and hip-hop records.

Likewise, you will often hear of Scott’s comparison to Miles Davis because of the former’s heavy use of Harmon mute and his so-called “whisper” technique, which is glorious to listen to, and produces a diaphanous, fuzzy sound, the musical equivalent of dipping a sponge in paint and grazing the canvas, leaving streaks of color with bubbles of white. But Harmon mute does not a Miles make, and neither do traces of hip-hop or rock (which have been done in jazz for a while) make a new genre (check out Robert Glasper’s “J Dillalude” or Brad Mehldau’s covers of Radiohead or Oasis). Instead, I was happy to engage Scott’s record on its own terms, equal parts hip-hop and cool jazz.

The leadoff, “K.K.P.D.,” is an aggressive number, channeling Scott’s own experience with police, that is highlighted by Williams’ skipping on toms and snare and punctuated by Mingus-like grunts in between pauses on Scott’s screeching solo. The group’s cover of Thom Yorke’s “The Eraser” has been heralded as a highlight, and rightly so. It is a verbatim cover of the original, but with the group’s dexterous treatment sounds like it was written for a jazz combo. Particularly good is when Kris Funn jumps on bass from high timbres on the verse to low, meaty support on the chorus. Milton Fletcher is good here on piano, but really shines on “Isadora”, where he does his best Bill Evans impersonation, introducing the piece with shimmering blocking (where the player harmonizes using rich chords rather than single notes) and then delivering a soulful, technically perfect solo.

Guitarist Matt Stevens is the source of much of the group’s characteristic sound. On “The Eraser” he doubles with Scott so that the melody rings a bit longer and a bit rounder. Throughout the record, he often adds harmonic depth with few overtone chimings while letting Fletcher handle the chordal foundation of the song. On “Jenacide,” he lays down an alternately beautiful and off-kilter

solo over Williams’ fat beat, not unlike Pat Metheny, and one is thankful here to also hear Scott’s own funk chops. And on the plaintive “Angola, L.A. & the 13th Amendment” he produces the brittle, crunchy strumming that is characteristic of rock recordings.

“Angola,” which invokes the Louisiana state prison/working farm as a reminder that the 13th amendment still allows for slavery as punishment for a crime, is the longest and most ambitious composition on the recording. On it, Scott gives his own type of solo: not overly showy, plenty of space, cognizant of the fact that a note or two can say a lot—some might say like Miles. But more than emulating the masters, Scott and his quintet with Yesterday have instead done something that doesn’t happen as often in jazz today as you might think: produce an authentically original album of music, one with some real feeling to it.

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