Concord Records’ NEXT Collective brings together what many are calling the supergroup of this generation of musicians. Combining the talents of Ben Williams, Christian Scott, Matt Stevens, Jamire Williams, Kris Bowers, Walter Smith III, Logan Richardson and Gerald Clayton, these musicians give some credence to the term “supergroup.” Originally conceived by Chris Dunn, Senior A&R at Concord, the record moves past the outdated “jazz” labeling and delves into the more pop-oriented influences of these incredible musicians.
Leading up to the February 26th release of ‘Cover Art,’ we will be bringing you interviews with the musicians and previews of the songs each one arranged for the record, so check back with us often! Christian Scott brought one of the heaviest tunes to ‘Cover Art’ in arranging “No Church In The Wild” off of Jay-Z & Kanye’s ‘Watch the Throne.’ As a special guest and “quasi-producer,” Scott brought us some insight and storytelling from the process in a style very much his own. Check out what he had to say.
What first excited you about doing this project?
I ended up getting a call from Chris Dunn telling me he was putting together a project of young musicians — first-call cats — to do a project that he was really excited about. It would be taking a new step towards playing some music that a lot of people really love, but reshaping it and doing it in a way that would be really unique. What excited me about doing the project was that there were so many guys who were alumnus of my band — Matthew, Walter, Jamire, you know. Some of these guys have been in my group for nearly ten years.
So for me it was kind of the best call I could ever get to do a record, because it just sort of goes to show you that when guys actually do the work and put in the time, they can be who they want to end up being in their careers. I know that’s a weird way to phrase that, but a lot of times guys complain about not getting opportunities or a chance to do things. It ends up being one of those times where they just don’t put the time in. To be able to see so many guys who come from my group and who have made records with Chris Dunn and Concord for so many years, it’s great to be able to finally document this as a collective of musicians. Then they’re going to step into making their solo records this year as well.
For me, that was one of the greatest moments of my career as a bandleader to hear that a lot of these first-call musicians who defined a generation’s sound were from my group. It made me smile, you know? I think I was probably smiling for weeks. I love all of these guys; they’re some of my best friends.
What was it about these musicians that originally drew you to work with them?
They’re all different. I guess I should start with Walter because he was the first one out of all of those guys that made the record who was in my group. Walter and I started working together in like 2001 — eleven or twelve years ago. And we’ve known each other since we were teenagers. The first time I heard Walter play, I was like 14 and he was like 17 and I’ll never forget it. It was an Omega Psi Phi Talent Show. Me and a saxophone player named Louis Fouché were performing for the gala at the competition that was in New Orleans. Walter came into town and was competing and I believe he actually won. I remember we were walking to set up our stuff and he was warming up. He had such a big sound and such a great sound that I thought it was a guy who was much older than he was. We hit it off immediately and became great friends. Some years later my uncle actually married his aunt, so we were quasi-cousins for a while and at Berklee we would go around telling folks we were cousins. So I have known Walter for a long time. Even though he had spent some time in my groups, he was always like a quiet big brother though.
As far as Matthew goes, my relationship is a little bit different. Matthew is actually only one year older than me, but we’re pretty much in the same peer group while Walter was in the group of guys that were older than us. But Matthew has been in my band for ten years. He’s worked as a musical director in the band and we’ve worked together in many capacities. He’s definitely one of my best friends in the world. When we first started working together, I think our personalities and our friendship were much stronger than how we sounded together at first [laughs]. But through a few years and a lot of refinement, we’ve pretty much grown to be almost inseparable in the music in certain ways. A lot of younger musicians view us in tandem sometimes.
Jamire joined my band probably the last out of all those guys — I think around 2007. There is never enough you can say about this guy though. He’s one of the few guys who has been able to cultivate a very unique and captivating sound on his instrument, which is a very hard thing to do and a very rare thing to do. The first time I actually heard Jamire play, we were still in high school and we both went to the Vail Jazz Camp. We actually initially hit it off because we made fun of all the rest of the campers [laughs]. He’s from Houston and I’m from New Orleans, so we grew up in cultures where you kind of make fun of people, but it’s not a negative thing. You just make fun of people as a way of breaking the ice. Culturally we were from that element and a lot of the other campers were not, so a lot of times they internalized it and they thought we were being mean when we were really just trying to have a good time with them. So we initially hit it off and became homeboys.
It’s funny how Jamire ended up being in my band actually. We did an IAJE conference in 2006 or something like that. Thomas Pridgen was still in the band at that point. I guess there were pictures of me all over the conference and I have an identical twin brother who was walking around. Jamire hadn’t seen me in years and didn’t know that I had a twin, so he saw Kiel and was like, “Yo Christian, what’s up man, it’s been so long!” My brother was in one of those moods where he was sick of so many people thinking he was me, so he was like, “I’m not Christian. I’m Kiel.” Jamire was like, “Why are you acting salty, of course you’re Christian.” Kiel was like, “No, Christian is my twin brother; I’m Kiel.” So Jamire was like, “Oh, you’re going to play me to the left and act like you don’t know me, well fuck you then.” Then like six months later I ended up running into Jamire and I was like, “Yo dog, we have to play together. I’m thinking about going in a new direction with my quintet. I think the way you play can be great for this.” He was just like, “The last time I saw you, you tried to play me to the left and now you’re asking me to be in the band?” I didn’t know what he was talking about. I was like, “I didn’t see you that day.” Jamire says,” I met some nigga who told me his name was Kiel and said he was your twin.” I was like, “Dog, I do have a twin!” [laughs]. Man, it’s funny how you have all of these situations.
The thing is, as much as I was captivated by these guys as musicians, I’m also captivated by their spirits and their energy as people. So I do have to say that as far as being a bandleader, I am the most fortunate guy ever. I’ve been able to have a lot of success with bands of people who are really just my friends. To me that comes first. I fall in love with these guys as people, we become friends, and that makes it easier to work on things conceptually and build the music as opposed to hiring just the guys that are “the baddest cats.” When we did this record, there wasn’t a lot of talking and we didn’t hardly even rehearse. Since we’ve worked together for so many years, you can put us in a room together and there’s nothing we can’t do. We all know each other so well as people and as musicians.
What was the vibe in the studio like? I talked to Walter and he said that his favorite experience of the process was that anytime you were talking, he was laughing.
The funny thing is that my relationship with him is always a little bit different from the others because he’s always making fun of me actually. I love Walter to death, don’t get me wrong, but even though we know each other so well, it’s always been difficult for me in certain capacities with Walter because I always view him like an older brother. Just like if you have an older brother that makes fun of you all the time, you’re talking all the time to make sure that they don’t talk. You know if he says some shit, it’s going to be about you and you’re going to end up cussing him out or doing some shit like that [laughs]. So pretty much the whole session, anytime Walter was around I was either making fun of what he was wearing or talking shit just to make sure he wasn’t talking shit about me. We had a good laugh. That’s our relationship man; we’re always making fun of each other.
For Cover Art, you arranged “No Church In The Wild” from the Watch the Throne album. How did you come to pick that track?
To be honest with you I just like the bassline. I felt like the bassline had a hump in it that could be adaptable. I really like finding things that swing in a certain way, but you wouldn’t listen to it and say that the line is swinging. There’s something about it that has a hump in it that I knew we could beat up the beat like that. So when Chris told me what the personnel was, I knew that any tune I picked I would be able to get them to play right. With that bassline in particular, I knew Ben Williams was on the hit and there’s pretty much nothing he can’t do with the bass. I knew that even though it was in a funky key for the bass — it’s not an open-string key for the bass so it’d be a lot of work for him — he would still be able to walk it and make it hump. So it was kind of a perfect fit.
Plus the tune, for lack of a better term, has got swag to it. I felt like if you could take something like that — a Jay-Z & Kanye West tune — and kind of throw a little Miles vibe on it, it would be a color and a shape that people could get down with. Ultimately I just wanted to make sure that whichever tunes we picked for the record would be something that when people heard it, it would shift the way they saw other music. I didn’t want to pick something that people could already envision a jazz version of; I picked a song that had such a different vibe. I want people to be like, “Damn, I didn’t even know you could do a jazz version of that!” I use the term stretch music for this type of stuff. It’s jazz or jazzy or whatever, but you’re just stretching the shit out of it.
That’s definitely the most well known song that you guys picked for the record. Was anyone surprised by your pick?
I’m not sure. It’s funny because my relationship to the project is different from everyone else’s in that I was really more like a quasi-producer and special guest. I’m in the band, but I’m not in the band. So who knows what was said behind closed doors [laughs]. They might have been cussing me out. I know that when we brought it in and did it in rehearsal, it immediately had a vibe and everybody wanted to play on it, which is a good sign. But when you’re making a record with that many instruments, you have to pick and choose who is going to play on it because you don’t want to have like eight solos on every song.
We actually play “No Church In The Wild” with my quintet now and it’s crazy the reception that we get. I have yet to play it live with this band, so on the 26th I’ll get to see what that feels like. But when we played it as a quintet, people were losing their shit.
Was that Kris or Gerald on the piano for that track?
That’s Gerald on “No Church In The Wild.” He threw some really bad shit in there during my solo. I had to switch up what I was doing because he was actually really engaged. That boy is so bad! One of the greatest things about making this record too is just being around guys in your age-range. When I was coming up I was on the road with my uncle when I was 16 or 17 and Mulgrew would do a week with us here or there. You would really be able to feel those older guys that had gotten to that masterful level. As someone that was an adolescent player, those guys helped me build solos and play in a way as to where no matter what it was that I was doing, I could find a way in and out because of the way that they comped. That’s one of the things that I really loved about Gerald’s playing.
Even though we’re all in the same peer group and we’re relatively young jazz musicians, these guys have gotten to that level really quickly. A lot of guys don’t start to turn that corner until they hit their forties or so. With Gerald playing with his dad and his uncle for so many years and then leading his own band, and then all of the guys who have played in so many bands, we’ve sort of been forced by the touring demand to grow a lot faster than most of the guys who play this music at a high level. We are fortunate to be able to just play a lot. So that was really fun to play a tune like that with Gerald. I’ve always wanted him to be in my band actually, but he’s so busy man. So playing this tune with Jamire, Matt, Walter, Gerald and the rest of the guys felt like it was my band almost — I had a really good time with it.
You’ve referred to this music as jazz, something a lot of musicians have an issue with. In general, do you think this record will change the way people perceive your generation of music?
For me, the reason that I use the term stretch music is because that’s what it really sounds like you are doing. Conceptually we try to create a palette where we can fit as much musical vernacular into one context as possible. As far as I see it, this is an extension of jazz. I’m not saying stretch to mean that it isn’t jazz; stretch is just what I call this generation’s way of navigating jazz. We’re trying to create music that is sort of all encompassing. But I definitely think a record like this is going to help in the perception of what this generation does with this music. Sometimes people have very pejorative and belittling ideas about what this music is, but the vast majority of those situations are when that person hasn’t really been exposed to the music. What’s great about what Chris decided to do with this record is that it gives people the opportunity to hear the music in a space where we’re actually taking a step towards something that they’re comfortable with.
A lot of times I see that guys have trouble navigating that line. That’s what makes this so great — it’s a collective of guys. We can do something like this and do it in a tasteful way. No one is looking at the situation as if it’s a bad idea to make a covers record. It’s really everyone’s record and no one’s record at the same time. It was almost like showing up to a jam session. If you go to a jam session and it’s killin’, you can’t say you saw Roy Hargrove and it was killin’. You have to say that this jam session was killin’ and these were all the guys that were a part of it. That’s how I really view this record.
A lot of times in this industry people complain about the resources that they’re denied. But at the same time they are not taking a step in their music towards the audience. The music becomes a masturbatory thing. There’s nothing wrong with people making music as a means of catharsis or making challenging music, but there’s a balance. When I teach clinics or camps and things they sometimes ask me to bring some of my music to play. They’ll look at me and say, “Well this shit is ridiculously hard, but it’s still banging.” There are ways to be able to do that. This record shows that you can actually make a bridge to the listener. It’s like, Stevie Wonder is bad musician and all, but the dude can also get down. It’s good to be able to do that.
Do you have any favorite experiences with this project?
This couldn’t have been a better experience and I wouldn’t have wanted to make this record with anyone else. I was watching this documentary about the Dream Team a couple days ago. It’s funny because a lot of those guys had been competing against each other and that is a part of this. But once they all got in a room together, they found that they had more in common than they don’t. With us, the bond between all of these musicians was a beautiful thing. I wish there were students there to see that you can make a great record and egos don’t have to get in the way. We’re able to create something really captivating and beautiful. I know I’m longwinded, but it’s warranted to be able to share this opportunity we all had.
Do you have any shows coming up that fans can check you out at?
Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)
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