IN “THE CONTINUUM”
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PELICAN PUBLISHING
Echoes of Miles Davis are not quite everywhere in the surreal poetics of Christian Scott’s horn play. But the young trumpeter on the Concord Jazz label is an instrumental voice clearly inspired by Miles’s post-bop ensemble style. On his new CD, Yesterday You Said Tomorrow, Scott lays out a flow of melodic whispers, surges and ebb, beating back to the shore.
As the nights turned warm in late March, I kept listening to Scott’s new CD, and an earlier one, Anthem, with a six-and-a-half minute cri de coeur called “Katrina’s Eyes.” Instead of planting mental pictures of the flood and nightmare months that followed, Christian Scott’s floating lines filled me with memories of his grandfather’s funeral.
December 5, 1998: St. Augustine church in Tremé. Big Chief Donald Harrison, leader of the downtown gang Guardians of the Flame, lies in state. The ritual is rare and moving as Mardi Gras Indians surround a coffin at the head of the aisle in a Catholic church. A big guy clad in feathers, bouncing light off the stained glass radiance, fills up the space by the coffin. He lets out a cry to heaven, sorrow in the loss and then dances in a semicircle by the Big Chief’s coffin. Soon, the jazzmen, led by the chief’s son Donald Harrison Jr. on alto sax, begin to play. Christian Scott, 14, just starting in NOCCA’s music program, sounds his horn on “Just A Closer Walk With Thee.” The song begins “at a slow, meditative pace, [the musicians] adding their collective energy to the traditional song,” Al Kennedy writes in the newly released Big Chief Harrison and the Mardi Gras Indians. “When they finished, the church erupted in thunderous applause.”
The most vivid moment for me that day came as Cora Harrison, one of the chief’s daughters, and Christian’s mom, stood up to sing a eulogy. She gestured to the musicians not to play, and all alone sang “Indian Red,” the tribal prayer that Indians sing in the morning before setting out for Mardi Gras, her slow stately a capella version rising on a voice as smooth as watered silk.
Christian Scott’s jazz trumpet work is getting notices in the big leagues; the postmodernist persona he has cut seems more Manhattan than New Orleans, more cutting-edge jazz than roots rhythms of the old home town. Scott maneuvers well on Yesterday You Said Tomorrow, a cool tone roaming through ideas of melody, all of a piece with jazz frontiers, on thresholds of the fresh and bold.
When a musician comes from a family so entwined in culture as Scott’s sprawling clan, it is natural to wonder how the influences shade the sensibility of a young musician, carving out his space in what jazz professor Alvin Batiste memorably called “the continuum” – how the music moves, redefining jazz as the language of jazz extends.
Kennedy’s book on the patriarch, Donald Harrison Sr., portrays a man of many parts. Harrison and his wife Herreast, an educator and fifth-generation quilter, were married nearly half a century. They raised a large family in their home in the Upper 9th Ward where books, music and vibrant self-expression found full flower in the Mardi Gras Indian costumes, songs and tribal lore.
Kennedy’s treatment of that Indian tradition is tenderly wrought, though he ignores other historical accounts to the book’s detriment. But in the Big Chief he has a three-dimensional figure to fill the pages. A waiter by profession for much of his life, Donald Harrison Sr. was a gourmand, labor organizer, political activist, doting elder and a voracious reader who found a deep influence in the French philosopher Albert Camus. Harrison took a central idea of Camus’s The Rebel – of the man who says yes and no at the same time, insisting that injustice must be confronted and boundaries upheld – and gave that theme the fire of myth-making as Big Chief of Guardians of the Flame.
“The slave became a rebel,” he tells Kennedy. “The Rebel is out of sight.”
So was the Big Chief.
His grandson Christian Scott delivers polished jazz in Yesterday You Said Tomorrow. For a player so young, from a background so fertile, Scott’s journey as a musician is sure to draw on that seedbed of memory and myth to enrich the continuum, taking jazz where it hasn’t been before.