Frank Zappa thought up too many witty one-liners to mention, but one of his most potent, “Jazz is not dead. It just smells funny.”, is so striking not simply because of how snappy it is, but because of how much its meaning has changed over the decades. Whilst it would be impossible to infer what Zappa’s own impression of the current jazz climate would be were he still alive, the fact that an entire new wave of jazz innovators, from Moon Hooch to Kamasi Washington to Colin Stetson and his recent Ex Eye project, have been coming out of the woodwork to confront stylistic conventions and break down genre boundaries shows that, whilst jazz may indeed smell funny, this is far from a result of the genre being forgotten about and having fallen by the wayside of mainstream relevance. Instead, its smell is more of a peculiar and enticing scent than a miasma of second-hand smoke and stale alcohol from a closed-down jazz club, and one of the more alluring aromas as of late has been wafting over from Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s camp. Having established both his reverence for jazz traditions amongst his earlier releases, as well as his appetite for experimentation on more recent records, particularly 2015’s Stretch Music, 2017 seems to be the year in which Adjuah has set his sights on reconciling these two sides of his musical persona, in the form of a trio of albums, entitled The Centennial Trilogy, released to mark the 100 year anniversary of the world’s first ever jazz recordings, courtesy of Original Dixieland Jass Band with their single Livery Stable Blues. The first album of this trilogy came in the form of Ruler Rebel, a project that witnessed the trumpeter pursue a style that was atmospheric to the point of arguably leaning just as close to ambient music as it did to jazz at times, whilst Adjuah’s desire to capture a classic jazz sound nevertheless turned up every now and then in the form of a brief motif or a whiff of melody. This being said, as much as Ruler Rebel seemed to be a fascinating idea in theory, the artist’s execution left a little to be desired, with his minimal stylings across the record seldom striking the balance between mood and intrigue that could have substantially benefited such an approach. Despite having intentions to review Ruler Rebel, the unyielding list of albums that I want to cover forced this idea to eventually be shelved, largely because I was honestly not entirely sure how much of note I had to say about the record. As much as it pains my perfectionism to be covering the second record in a trilogy without having properly touched on the first, the fact that I’m even writing this review probably already signals to the reader that I’m generally more positive about this album than I was about its predecessor, or at least have more to say about it. This is, indeed, the case, with the second instalment of The Centennial Trilogy, dubbed Diaspora, maintaining many of the atmospheric sensibilities of Ruler Rebel, but applying them more to a context that seems to be derived from certain subdivisions of hip hop, particularly trap and lo-fi hip hop. Although Adjuah is far from the first jazzman to attempt such a feat, the bandleader’s take comes across as exceptionally eclectic, with some J Dilla-inspired beats being meshed with some more traditional, jazzy, rhythmic freak-outs, whilst the artist’s own playing brings together styles from across the map, and quite literally, given the prevalence of various African and Latin jazz influences throughout the tracklisting. There are certainly some instances across the album wherein Diaspora suffers from similar stylistic shortfalls to Ruler Rebel, but, for the most part, Adjuah’s second chapter of his homage to the birth of jazz is a much more fitting and generally well-rounded meeting of myriad approaches to the genre to have been birthed across the course of the past 100 years.
Undoubtedly, the best moments from across Diaspora are successful for the reasons that Ruler Rebel often fell short of the mark when it came to capturing the mellow, atmospheric tone of Adjuah’s newfound style, whilst matching this with an engaging degree of instrumental flourishes and compositional variation. In other words, with the best music that ambient, lo-fi hip hop and other minimal genres have to offer being dulcet enough to establish a chilled vibe, but enthralling enough to never quite fade completely into the background, this was one of the main areas in which Ruler Rebel was lacking, but Diaspora is much more successful in achieving. What’s more, with many of these pieces clearly taking cues from beat-making bellwethers like J Dilla and Nujabes, striking this balance becomes even more pivotal to the success of the album. The opening title track, for instance, employs a cycling piano and drum sample to establish the hip hop-tinged groundwork of the composition and, simply as a pairing, the way in which the brisk drum break rattles against the fluttering piano loop creates a soothing, but not quite ignorable, foundation. Indeed, this looped beat never quite strikes a state of stagnancy, particularly as a result of the inclusion of numerous breaks in the rhythm, but nor does it ever come close to overshadowing the salient propulsive force of the track, that being Adjuah and guest flautist Elena Pinderhughes’ delicately interwoven melodies. Firstly, Adjuah’s layered, wah-wah trumpet harmonies that appear towards the front-end of the piece carry a lovely, crisp quality that plays particularly well against the snap of the trap snare, and, as these melodies devolve into a call-and-response with a smooth, bubbling bass, this track is established as having the locomotion it needs to constantly keep things fresh, despite its soft, laid-back aesthetic. This is even more true further into the composition, as the captivation of Adjuah’s triumphant wails is matched with the fluid stutters of Pinderhughes’ dexterous flute work. The final song in the tracklisting, The Walk, retains a similar semblance of lo-fi hip hop in the way in which Adjuah and Pinderhughes’ playing is underlaid with some daintily flitting piano swirls, whilst Sarah Elizabeth Charles’ soulful, melodious vocal contributions are repetitive and unobtrusive enough to have the air of a hip hop sample, whereas the way in which they are lusciously textured gives her singing a slight edge of alluring mystique.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, tracks like Lawless match frantic breakbeats with some of Adjuah’s most restrained and smooth playing on the entirety of Diaspora, making for a piece that, once again, achieves a state of both interest and ambiance, with the jittery beat being incorporated in such a way as to not impede on the track’s unhurried hue, even during the polyrhythmic solo towards the end. Braxton Cook’s contributions on the saxophone, too, may strike speedy melodies at points, but his agile playing nevertheless retains a polished and sleek feel that not once veers worryingly close to becoming overpowering. Our Lady of New Orleans (Herreast Harrison) is outstanding for similar reasons, with some speedy, Afro-Cuban clave rhythms being paired with some interlocking bass rhythms from the peppy piano, whilst Adjuah’s contributions in the horns department are exceptionally smooth, making for an arrestingly vivid and vibrant composition. There are, however, pieces across Diaspora that don’t quite attain this duality, much in the same vein as a lot of Ruler Rebel, in a way that can push such tracks a bit too close to being able to easily slip into the background. As an example, although the reappearance of Pinderhughes’ swift flute work on Completely crafts some stunningly beautiful melodies, as it is interlaced amidst Adjuah’s brittle phrases of wah-wah trumpet, the excessively loose and long structure of the track can leave it occasionally feeling somewhat aimless, which is undoubtedly a shame, given the piece’s impassioned high points. Desire and the Burning Girl can feel similarly directionless at times, with Adjuah’s playing not coming across as being rooted in any one leitmotif that could anchor his relaxed explorations in some semblance of palpable purpose. Outside of the odd quibble, however, the greatest success of Diaspora, especially when compared to Ruler Rebel, is its ability to balance atmosphere with action, in that the best compositions over the course of the tracklisting achieve an ethereal tone, but equal this with an engaging sense of compositional progression that never allows a piece to become passively acceptant of its ambient nature.
Experimentation in any genre, but particularly in jazz, should be welcomed with open arms, even if the results are mixed or below par, as it’s the ambition to achieve something new with the style that will eventually lead to the conception of something revolutionary. In the case of Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, the release of Ruler Rebel made the primary case for what was unequivocally an interesting idea, even if the follow-through was underwhelming, whilst the most successful pieces from Diaspora captured the elements that made this concept enticing on paper and capitalised on them in the best way possible. As such, it feels as if Adjuah’s vision has largely come to fruition on this second record from The Centennial Trilogy, whilst the points of improvement will, with any luck, be ironed out by the time of the third instalment, The Emancipation Procrastination. Even if this is not the case, however, Diaspora has undeniably fortified the fact that, when he’s at the top of his game, Adjuah can produce some of the most compelling contributions to the development of contemporary jazz music.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10