Chief Adjuah Puts Down The Horn

Chief Adjuah Puts Down The Horn

Chief Adjuah, formerly known as Christian Scott, has been one of the most exciting musicians around for close to two decades. Since releasing his debut as a leader, 2006’s Rewind That, and particularly the following year’s Anthem, he’s been traveling a path that incorporates jazz, electronic music, trap, and all the percussive and rhythmic traditions of his native New Orleans. Since signing with Ropeadope a little over a decade ago, he’s put out a string of records that exist within a new genre he calls “stretch music,” best exemplified on his 2017 trilogy of Diaspora, Ruler Rebel, and The Emancipation Procrastination.

Adjuah has always maintained deep ties to his community, and at the beginning of this month he was named the Grand Griot of the 2023 Maafa Commemoration (“maafa,” pronounced “ma-ah-fa,” is a Kiswahili word meaning “horrific tragedy”), an annual ceremony intended to reckon with the history of the transatlantic slave trade and serve as a release from its legacy. The event, which takes in notable locations related to New Orleans’ history as a slave market, culminates in a march led by drummers, from Congo Square to the Mississippi River. His new album Bark Out Thunder Roar Out Lightning, out this week, is in many ways a love letter to New Orleans diasporic culture and the global Black diaspora in general, from its lyrics to the instruments Adjuah is playing on it to the costume he wears on the cover, which is derived from Mardi Gras Indian wear.

“I’m born into a West African stylized chiefdom system that obviously has a relationship to the First Nations persons of this country,” he explains. “And being born into that particular cultural space in New Orleans, it kind of tethers you to the roots of a lot of these expressions, you know, the musical expressions that we’re still contributing and building today.” His maternal grandfather, Donald Harrison led three different tribes beginning in the 1940s, eventually founding a group called the Guardians of the Flame; his uncle, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., is Big Chief of the Congo Square Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group. Adjuah pays tribute to each of those men on the new album.

This all connects to his name change, too, which has been gradual — he first referred to himself as Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah in 2012, and in 2023 legally changed his name to Xian aTunde Adjuah. “I think a lot of African-descent persons in America have apprehension about completing their name journeys,” he says. “Mainly because, you know, if a person goes from being named Johnson to being named Shakur, that generally comes with an energy. The way that you’re reacted to by the larger community can be very negative. And it can render you persona non grata in a lot of spaces, because oftentimes when a person does that, the initial feeling is that, you know, maybe they’re a nationalist, maybe they hold negative ideas about the society at large and these sort of things.”

Adjuah has always offered strong critiques of society, going back to the song “K.K.P.D.” from 2010’s Yesterday You Said Tomorrow, or the cover art to 2007’s Anthem, on which he stands in front of the chalk outline of a body on the sidewalk (which a child is busily turning into a hopscotch game). But on Bark Out Thunder…, he makes things more explicit than ever before, by putting down the trumpet and singing. The songs on this album — “Blood Calls Blood,” “Trouble That Mornin’,” the title track, “End Simulation” and more — are like verses in a single long, incantatory prayer. The lyrics are filled with images and lore drawn from vodou, from West African culture and ancient religion, and from the hybrid culture of New Orleans generally. Indeed, much of it may be impenetrable to the average listener, which Adjuah says is only right.

“I come from a family [where] everyone’s really a storyteller…my mother’s a historian, and we have different types of of artists, you know, film directors and all these different approaches to dissemination of stories and ideas. And you know, some stories require that you lay everything out. Other stories are sort of veiled, and both can be riveting.”

The track “Xodokan Iko – Hu Na Ney” is an act of reclamation, taking as its jumping-off point the 1950s R&B song “Iko Iko,” which songwriter James Crawford created by borrowing Mardi Gras Indian chants without understanding their context or meaning. Adjuah’s version restores much of that meaning, adding lyrics that reference the gods Elegba and Ogun and salute historical chiefs and queens and laying it over a dense rumble of African percussion and vocal ululations.

Although he doesn’t play trumpet on this album at all — he says “I just never heard it, you know? I can think of a myriad of places where it could go, you know, but that’s different from hearing it” — he’s doing something equally fascinating. For years his horns have been custom-built to his specifications, the bells jutting off wildly, the frames adorned in gold. Now he’s developed two new instruments, which he’s named Chief Adjuah’s Bow and Adjuah’s N’Goni. They’re harplike instruments, long and sharp with metallic strings, and he strums and plucks them in a manner that’s ritualistic and dreamlike at once.

“The one that I have now is the seventh prototype,” he says of the Bow. He’s been working on them with Adams Instruments, the people who’ve built his custom horns. “The first one was — I want to say it took maybe two months to put together because the [string] spacings, we had to try and figure out the spacing. You know, it’s been a hell of a process. But I want to say there’s been maybe eight different people that have been involved in creation of the different harps.” In addition to the Bow and the N’Goni, he plays bolon and kora, traditional West African stringed instruments, on the record.

He says that it’s both a necessary step — “Chief Adjuah’s Bow just feels like it had to come, you know” — and a fundamental evolution of his approach to music. “Just in terms of, like, the playing methodology and the role of the playing, it’s a completely new thing.” On “End Simulation,” where he’s playing a soft, kora-like pattern over layers of programmed and live percussion and singing, the music brings to mind Alice Coltrane’s 1975 album Eternity, not in its timbres or its rhythms but in its mood and the way it takes you from a consideration of quotidian reality to something much larger. The harp is a key to that transition.

“Man, you should see my road case for this thing; it’s as tall as I am, and really heavy,” he says with a laugh. He’s been experimenting with pedals from EarthQuaker and MXR, and various types of amplifiers, tying past to future through technology. “I love Vox amps and Fenders and I’m in here like trying to blow them up. So in other words, there are a ton of new ways to tether this centuries and centuries and centuries-old template into a 21st century way of expressing… and it’s fostered a completely different type of creative energy in our band that’s less rooted in the sort of improvisational energy and more rooted in kind of the sonic architectural and narrative and storytelling component of it, you know.”

“I think because of the kind of music that we make, the consensus is always that we’re looking forward and looking forward and looking forward and looking forward, where really the approach has always been sort of a sankofan energy, a West African energy, an idea that says you’re moving forward while looking backward, represented by the stork standing forward, but facing backwards,” Adjuah says. Thus, updating ancient West African harplike instruments and singing lyrics based in ancestral lore has allowed him to take his music in an unexpected direction, while preserving its essential qualities. (It helps that a lot of his frequent past collaborators, most notably percussionist Weedie Braimah and bassist Luques Curtis, are part of the ensemble here as well.) It’s possible to draw a line from Rewind That to Bark Out Thunder Roar Out Lightning and understand it all as part of one long narrative of reclamation, of declaration, of mourning and celebration and braggadocio and resistance, that is both uniquely New Orleans and deeply universal and human.



Jason Kao Hwang - "Friends Forever"

I’ve been listening to electric violinist Jason Kao Hwang’s music for over 20 years. The first time I went to New York’s Vision Festival, I saw his group the Far East Side Band, who combined instruments from multiple Asian countries (the Japanese shakuhachi, the Korean gayageum) into a kind of world fusion jazz that got shockingly loud at times. He’s also worked with William Parker, Anthony Braxton, and Henry Threadgill, among others. On this album, he’s joined by electric guitarist Anders Nilsson and drummer Michael T.A. Thompson for a collection of cranked-up fusion pieces that sit somewhere between James “Blood” Ulmer and 75 Dollar Bill. Hwang’s violin is fed through a whole chain of effects to almost psychedelic effect. The closing track, “Friends Forever,” is the shortest, a lovely and gentle blues ballad written in tribute to departed musical comrades. (From Book Of Stories, out now via Tone Science Music.)


Kaisa's Machine - "Gravity"

Bassist Kaisa Mäensivu formed the original version of Kaisa’s Machine in 2015 and released an album, In The Key Of K, in 2017. Then she moved from Finland to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music, and now she’s got a whole new band with the same name. This incarnation of Kaisa’s Machine (it’s a good name; I’d have kept it, too) includes tenor saxophonist Tivon Pennicott, vibraphonist Sasha Berliner, guitarist Max Light, pianist Eden Ladin and drummer Joe Peri. On “Gravity,” Pennicott and Ladin are absent, allowing Berliner’s vibes to come to the forefront, with support from Light. The piece has a bouncing, lighthearted melody that seems to counter its title; there’s very little holding these players to the earth. (From Taking Shape, out now via Greenleaf Music.)


Aki Rissanen - "Quantum Ballad"

Finnish pianist Aki Rissanen has been recording for Edition Records since 2015, almost always working in an acoustic realm…until now. His trio with bassist Antti Lötjönen and Teppo Mäkynen made three studio albums and a live disc that blended classical melodies with arrangements that took cues from electronic dance music, and he pulled some of the same tricks on his solo disc Divided Horizon. But Hyperreal — a collaboration with trumpeter Verni Pohjola and drummer Robert Ikiz — is something entirely different. Here, he’s working with a battery of synths to created swirling, humming, zapping tracks that he then lays acoustic piano solos on top of. Pohjola’s soft, melancholy trumpet whispers and croons, burrowing into the middle of the music, as Ikiz taps out gentle, precise beats. “Quantum Ballad” rises slowly to restrained climaxes, not unlike a late-period Radiohead song. (From Hyperreal, out now via Edition.)


Patrick Cornelius - "Puzzle Box"

Patrick Cornelius speaks in multiple voices — on this album, his first in four years, he plays alto and soprano saxes, clarinet, and alto flute. He’s backed by pianist Art Hirahara, vibraphonist Behn Gillece, bassist Peter Slavov, and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza, and a few guests crop up as well. The album is a collection of classicist tunes in traditional forms: the bebop burner, the blues, the delicate ballad. “Puzzle Box” is a high-energy piece on which tenor saxophonist Diego Rivera joins the action. It begins with Cornelius taking an extended alto solo over a jumpy, twitchy bebop groove from Hirahara, Slavov, and Sperrazza. Rivera comes in hot on his heels, playing smoothly but with authority and articulation. Each of them are offering their own spin on Giant Steps-era Coltrane, but still making it feel if not modern, at least timeless. (From Book Of Secrets, out now via Posi-Tone.)


Nicola Conte - "Arise"

Nicola Conte is an Italian guitarist and producer who emits a vaporous, sun-dappled sort of soul-jazz perfect for lazy, drifting afternoons by a resort hotel’s swim-up bar. But he’s got enough industry muscle to stack his albums with some pretty eye-popping guests. His 2018 album Let Your Light Shine On featured Nduduzo Makhathini on keyboards, Tumi Mogorosi on drums, Theo Croker on trumpet, and Logan Richardson on alto sax, among others. This record features two of my favorite Finns — saxophonist Timo Lassy and drummer Teppo Mäkynen — plus Paris-based American trumpeter Hermon Mehari and, on the opening “Arise,” London-born vocalist Zara MacFarlane. The song is shimmering neo-soul in the vein of the Brand New Heavies and other post-disco funk acts, adorned by Simon Moullier’s Roy Ayers-esque vibraphone. (From Umoja, out now via Far Out Recordings.)


Knoel Scott - "Makanda"

The Sun Ra Arkestra is a tight ship, even decades after the man himself abandoned Earth to travel the spaceways. Arkestra members rarely record or perform outside the confines of the group. Case in point: alto saxophonist Knoel Scott, who’s been on board for 40 years and is just now making his solo debut (a few self-released CDRs aside). On Celestial, he’s joined by fellow Arkestra member Marshall Allen, 99 years old and still tearing it up, and a young, UK-based rhythm section: pianist Charlie Stacey, bassist Mikele Montolli, and drummer Chris Henderson. Allen plays the EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument) here, giving the music a properly spacey feel, but the tunes are quite firmly anchored in traditional blues and hard bop. “Makanda” has a strutting, almost Latin feel, and Scott blows hard over Henderson’s snapping backbeat. The music was recorded in mono, giving it real punch. (From Celestial, out now via Night Dreamer.)


Jalen Baker - "Jinrikisha"

Vibraphonist Jalen Baker’s second album comes four years after his debut, This Is Me, This Is Us, and features three musicians from his hometown of Houston: pianist Paul Cornish, bassist Gabriel Godoy, and drummer Gavin Moolchan. Baker has worked with Jeremy Pelt, serving as part of the trumpeter’s live band, and Pelt produced this album as part of a series of releases on Cellar Live spotlighting Black artists. Most of the pieces are originals, performed with a confident energy that keeps the listener from wishing for the presence of a horn. Moolchan is particularly impressive, laying down powerful grooves that are almost drum ‘n’ bass breakbeats at times. Check out what he plays on the opening “The Light,” or how he interacts with Godoy’s one-note bass ostinato on “There’s Beauty In Fear.” One of the pieces the band interprets on this record is “Jinrikisha,” from Joe Henderson’s debut album, Page One. They bounce and crash through the melody, turning it into dance music while keeping it abstract and flowing. (From Be Still, out now via Cellar Live.)


Tyshawn Sorey - "Reincarnation Blues"

The partnership between pianist Aaron Diehl and drummer Tyshawn Sorey has been a thrill to hear. They started out on the trio disc Mesmerism last summer, a collection of standards and other outside tunes anchored by bassist Matt Brewer, then swapped him for Russell Hall and invited alto saxophonist Greg Osby to the party for the three-CD The Off-Off Broadway Guide To Synergism. On Continuing, Brewer is back, but the music is much more stretched-out and exploratory than on Mesmerism. Its four long tracks kick off with a version of “Reincarnation Blues,” a Wayne Shorter composition originally recorded on Art Blakey’s 1963 album Buhaina’s Delight. It travels along patiently and hypnotically for almost eight minutes before Diehl cuts the ropes holding him to earth and floats away on a Romantic cloud. You’ll know it when you hear it. (From Continuing, out now via Pi Recordings.)


Adrian Younge & Tony Allen - "Ebun"

The latest volume in the Jazz Is Dead series expands its sonic remit considerably. Most of the previous sessions have featured producers Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad playing multiple instruments and a guest doing the rest. This time out, the late Afrobeat legend Tony Allen — the drummer for Fela Kuti’s Afrika 70, and a solo artist since the dawn of the ’80s, who made a late-career turn to jazz — joins Younge, several percussionists, and an eight-piece horn section for a collection of searing grooves, including jazz, Afrobeat, funk and more. Allen’s instantly recognizable, loose-but-precise polyrhythms are as potent and swinging as ever, though his kit has a sharper sound than usual, and the horns sound like a choir when they’re not delivering raucous honks and roars. The opening “Ebun” is some of the most joyful, simmering Afrobeat you’ll ever hear; it’ll make your head nod and all your limbs twitch. (From Jazz Is Dead 18, out now via Jazz Is Dead.)


John Coltrane - "Africa"

The short (a year or so) but highly fertile creative relationship between John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy is already pretty well documented. Not only do we have the four CDs of The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (all the material from the albums Live At The Village Vanguard and Impressions, plus more) and the two volumes of Africa/Brass, but other live recordings from a November 1961 European tour have been around for years. The way their voices meshed — Coltrane on tenor or soprano sax, Dolphy on alto sax, bass clarinet, and/or flute — over McCoy Tyner’s piano, Reggie Workman’s bass, and Elvin Jones’ drums created an ever-flowing stream of ideas bolstered by punchy but hypnotic grooves.

Now, there’s a new addition to the Coltrane/Dolphy corpus. Evenings At The Village Gate was recorded in the summer of 1961, when Coltrane had a month-long residency from August 8 to September 3. The club had also installed a new sound system, so engineer Rich Alderson recorded the performances more as a test than anything else. The tapes sat in the archives of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts for decades, but were recently discovered and polished up for release.

These aren’t bootleg recordings, but neither are they full professional tapes like the Village Vanguard box set (from November 1961). The music was captured on a single RCA 77-A ribbon mic hanging from the basement club’s ceiling, running to a Nagra reel-to-reel deck backstage. The mix is astonishingly vivid — Elvin Jones is the loudest element, but that was likely to have been the case on the night, in the room. The performances are taken from several nights, including one on which a second bassist, Art Davis, joined the group. That’s the track I’ve chosen to post here, because unlike some of the other tunes on this set — “Impressions,” “My Favorite Things” — this is the only currently existing live recording of “Africa,” from Africa/Brass.

The studio version was recorded with a 15-member ensemble that included everyone heard here, plus four French horn players, trumpet, trombone, baritone sax, euphonium and tuba. Dolphy and Tyner handled the orchestrations, layering instruments into thick forests of moody drone. The album was recorded at two sessions, on May 23 and June 7, and was released September 1, 1961, so “Africa” and “Greensleeves” were likely being premiered at this engagement. The live version is nearly six minutes longer than the studio take, and after some wailing fanfares and extended solos from Coltrane and Dolphy, weaving in and out of each other’s path like dolphins playing in the ocean, a lot of that is taken up with patient, exploratory bass solos. This is an incredible mood piece, journeying from free jazz (which was just getting started, but Coltrane was already heading for the fence line) to dual bass jams — Davis taking the lead, Workman in support — to an absolute cataclysm of a drum solo from Elvin Jones. I can’t even imagine what being in the room for music like this must have been like, especially in 1961. (From Evenings At The Village Gate, out now via Verve/Impulse!)


We rely on reader subscriptions to deliver articles like the one you’re reading. Become a member and help support independent media!

more from Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz

Please disable your adblocker or subscribe to ad-free membership to view this article.

Already disabled it? Click here to refresh.