Monday, November 3, 2008

Christian Scott Talks About Life, Berklee, and His New Album "Live At Newport"

Christian Scott, who has recently been receiving accolades for his albums "Rewind That" and "The Anthem," has a new album out on Concord, "Live At Newport." I interviewed him for the Berklee Groove; I figured you guys might find this interesting, and I also thought it was a good idea to put it up because the published interview is abridged. Seriously, this time, it actually is pretty long (we're talking almost 2000 words here), but if you bear with it Scott makes a lot of really interesting points about his music and has some good advice for young musicians:

Jazz Monster: You graduated very recently (2004). You’re releasing your third album in three years now-
Christian Scott: Actually, it’s my fourth album in four years. The first one I put out on my own label when I was still at Berklee.

JM: Four albums in four years. It seems like it’s been so fast since you graduated.
CS: You know, it’s funny. It feels like it’s been a long time to me, but mainly because it feels like I’ve been working non-stop for four or five years. So it feels like a long period of time has elapsed even though it’s been four years.

JM: How did that happen?
CS: You just keep working. What happens to a lot of musicians is they get out of school and they don’t know what to do so they freeze and start doing other things instead of pressing on. All the guys who I know who kept on pressing on, they’re still working. They never stopped working. You’ve just gotta work- you get calls from cats to play and then you start your own band. If that’s not working, you have to do something else; write music and get a licensing deal and a publishing deal. Do something, just don’t sit on your hands. Sitting on your hands is like death for a musician.

JM: What did you do after you graduated?
CS: Immediately after I graduated I signed my record deal with Concord. After I signed the record deal with Concord I started working on the music that [wound up being 2006’s] Rewind That. Ever since the album came out I’ve been constantly touring or working as a sideman or a producer and doing some stuff for film. Once I finished with Berklee, I immediately started moving. I didn’t want to stick around Boston, you know? I like Boston, but the scene in Boston is a lot of kids; either in school, or not in school but hanging around. It’s hard to stand out in that situation just because everybody looks the same. Leaving Berklee is like leaving home, once you turn eighteen, you’ve gotta get out of the house.

JM: What was it like coming back last year [to film part of The Newport Experience for the DVD section of Live at Newport]?
CS: It’s always cool coming back. All of my teachers there are good friends of mine, many of whom I’ve played professionally- in fact, in school I was playing with most of them professionally. I always love coming back. I especially love Rob Hayes in the office of Public Affairs, I always go up and mess with him when I’m at Berklee. He’s been a great friend to me. And of course Roger [Brown], your president, he’s a cool guy too. He’ll come out and play drums with us. Everybody- the entire Berklee family is great. When I come up I feel like I never left.

JM: Shifting gears a bit, listening to [your 2007 album] The Anthem and the new record, it’s clear that you’ve got a very characteristic compositional style. How do you compose? What do you think about when you’re writing tunes?
CS: Nothing. I just write them. I learned when I was younger that you learn things so that you can forget them. You learn lessons about harmony so that you don’t have to think about them. There are many techniques that I learned when I went to the New Orleans High School for the Creative Arts and when I went to Berklee, but I don’t think about any of that stuff when I’m writing because if I do, the process stops being about what I’m trying to convey or get out and becomes about what I’m intellectualizing.

JM: Do you think that it winds up sounding contrived that way?
CS: Not really, because there are guys that write that way who write music that doesn’t sound contrived. I think that has more to do with how the music is played. If you’re playing music with a drummer whose comfortable with playing music in 4/4 time, and you write something in 5/4, it will probably end up sounding contrived because the guy isn’t comfortable with playing in 5/4. I think more importantly, you want it to sound natural; you want it sound like what you’re feeling. Sometimes you’ll find out after you’ve written something that it goes through four different time signatures before it’s over. That’s just because you write it out, and you can edit it later so that it can effectively communicate what you want to play. At the time you’re writing it, you don’t want to think “that sounds like it’s in 10, and I don’t want to write something in 10.”

JM: So you don’t really think about what it’s going to be like to improvise over your tunes when you write them?
CS: No, you don’t- that’s why you spend all of your time refining your efforts to become a great improviser. If you have to think about what it is that you need to improvise, then you still need to study. I started going on the road with Donald Harrison’s band when I was thirteen years old, so that kind of training in the ability to play over anything happened at a very young age for me. Most of the guys who I play with are great improvisers; you can tell them five different ways to approach a chord and it isn’t going to matter because they react to the sound. All the great improvisers react to the sound, because when you’re playing a tune it’s going to change anyway based on what your doing. Are you trying to create tension? Are you trying to resolve it? You never know what you’re going to be hearing, so what you want to hone is your ability to decipher sound.

JM: So when you improvise you try to react more to sound than to what’s going on in the composition?
CS: To be honest with you, I’m not thinking about anything anymore, but what I’m saying is that most great improvisers have a better time reacting to sound than to sitting down and shedding a tune to get the changes. For instance, if you’re playing with a guy like Christian McBride and he’s playing a bass solo, he isn’t going to ask you to just put the changes in his face, he’s going to ask you to play through it. He’s going to play while you play, and work it out. In my music I don’t really think about it at all, I think about what I’m doing as a part of the composition as a whole. So rather than thinking about building my solo in the most dynamic way or in terms of getting the coolest or the hippest thing happening, I think more about the arc of the song. “What does the song need right now,” as opposed to “how can I fit in this flashy dope line.”

JM: It’s all about listening and trying to fit in.
CS: Yeah. For instance, if [guitarist] Matt [Stevens] just finished a long solo with lots of tension, then my solo isn’t going to be like that. I’m gonna try and calm it down a bit. Music moves in waves, it should rise and fall. You want your music to have dynamics and arcs, because if there’s no arc then you’re not going to be able to hold anymore of the tension.

JM: Do you have any tips for any young jazz musicians at Berklee?
CS: Finish! First, finish Berklee. Stop leaving. Everybody acts like it’s hard to stay at Berklee; it’s not hard to stay at Berklee. The school has done everything in its power to make it the best facility for what it is in the world, so why would you want to leave it so quickly. I’ve met kids who are in they’re first semester who tell me they’re going to stick around another semester and then leave. Well then what was the point of coming? You may as well have just taken your chances of going on the road and playing with somebody. But if you’re trying to educate yourself, and trying to be the musician that you can be, you should stick with something and finish it. That’s my advice; I can’t really offer any advice about the music business because that’s a crapshoot. You have absolutely no control over that. The best you can do is control what you’re doing artistically. So stay in school and stick by your convictions; that’s my advice.

JM: What was the most important thing you learned while you were at Berklee?
CS: I think the most important thing that I took into Berklee and that was also reaffirmed for me while I was there was to have respect for all musicians and all people. You can learn something from anyone, and anyone who thinks that they can’t learn something from anyone is missing something. I was into Berklee because I turning around and seeing a guy with a Mohawk. I like being around people; I like hearing their stories, their anxieties, I like hearing what makes them laugh, because all of that effects the way that you make music. The one thing I took out of Berklee was that respect for human beings, because there are so many different types of people there.

JM: Do you find that musically as well?
CS: Yeah, definitely. You can find someone from Israel, and they’ll show you some of their work songs or some of their religious songs. You could meet someone from Japan who can show you that folk music. There are so many different things that you can take from your experience while you’re there. If you’re a guitarist from Cleveland who goes to Berklee and you play rock music- if you’re just playing rock music and hanging out with rock musicians you’re really missing out on everything [Berklee] has to offer. If you’re a jazz trumpet player from New Orleans and you just play jazz all the time you’re missing out. You should take that time to go out and meet people and get out of your dorm room and play as much as possible.

1 comment:

Marshall said...

Hey young blood! Marshall McDonald here! Ran into your Mom this morn in Starbucks, she gave me her email 'cause I was sending her my schedule, but it came back.

Send me an email so I can get the right address:


Great to see you are doing it.