Swing Time: Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah

Jeff Tamarkin on July 19, 2021
Swing Time: Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah will never forget his first gig with the band that would become R+R=Now. His services as trumpeter had been requested by his old friend, keyboardist Robert Glasper, for a special showcase at Austin’s SXSW in 2017. Glasper had assembled an outstanding lineup for the occasion but— because the gig had come together on such short notice— they didn’t have time to rehearse.

“We just hit the bandstand,” remembers Adjuah, still known to many fans simply by his birth name of Christian Scott. “And I’d just had oral surgery; I had two wisdom teeth that had become abscessed and had been removed four days before. It was crazy. I was wiping blood out of the bell of my horn. But I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity. It was like the NBA All-Star Game: Sometimes somebody is on the injured list and they will just will it in order to be able to play in the game because having that experience is very unique. I was elated to play with my brothers.”

Those brothers of which he speaks—Glasper, synthesizer/ vocoder master and vocalist Terrace Martin, synth ace Taylor McFerrin, bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Marcus Gilmore (replaced by Justin Tyson in time for the band’s debut album)—each shared that intense devotion, albeit minus the spilled blood. “The first performance we did was a soundcheck,” Adjuah says, “And it was like we were getting in the boxing ring and asking, ‘Which one is the referee? Because I’m going to kill the other motherfucker.’ It was that kind of energy on the first gig.”

Deciding it would be wise to further investigate their collective possibilities, the sextet booked more gigs. Glasper named the group R+R=Now—Reflect and Respond—after “Respond,” a song that would eventually turn up on their debut studio album for Blue Note, Collagically Speaking. From the start, they knew they had something that danced daringly outside of any genre boundaries—something different than what each musician was doing on his own.

Now, there’s a sophomore album, which reveals their growth as a working unit: R+R=Now Live, recorded at the New York Blue Note club. The seven-track set reprises and expands on a few songs from the studio set (“Respond” leads it off), and introduces some new ones, including a take on Kendrick Lamar’s “How Much a Dollar Cost.” The connection to the original is a direct one— Martin played alto saxophone on the Lamar track, and Glasper appears elsewhere on the rap great’s groundbreaking To Pimp a Butterfly album.

“I don’t know how it happened,” says Adjuah, a five-time Grammy nominee. “It could have started at a moment in the soundcheck, where we were going back and forth and someone said, ‘We should probably play that tonight.’”

Such spontaneity is key to the group’s success. “I don’t think anything that ended up making these records was a second take,” Adjuah says. “We took a few moments to figure out where the mood should be, what we were intending and what we were trying to convey. But every night on the bandstand is different. One of the most fun parts about this band is that we’ve done gigs where we will walk on the bandstand and Terrace may start, I may start or Robert may start, and then it’s 90 minutes of music based on where that seed was planted. By the time we got to the Blue Note performances, each composition had existed in 50, 70 or even 200 different contexts. When you have players with this type of acumen, they don’t require sharpening.

“This is a group of guys that all come out of seemingly disparate tentacles,” he continues, referring to the diverse musical backgrounds of the players, which run from jazz to R&B, hip-hop, gospel and more. “No one was included that hadn’t done their time—in terms of learning and understanding why this music is faceted the way it is. Everybody involved knows their history and all of the things that exist around the music. They’ve learned the methodology and approaches. So having the opportunity to be able to build with a peer group that also had that much information, and had been through all of those processes, was really a fun idea.”

R+R=Now Live is actually the second live release that Adjuah was involved in during the past year. Last August, he released Axiom—which documents his own group performing at the Blue Note in New York—through Ropeadope. The main difference, of course, is that he’s the undisputed leader on Axiom whereas, with R+R, each member has equal pull. “It’s like you’re on the bridge of the Enterprise, but there’s six captains,” he says of R+R. “One captain may have been a science officer; another captain may have been a security officer. Worst case scenario, whoever is at the helm, everyone knows that they’ve earned it. Whereas, with my group, what we’re doing is more curated. We’re building an environment that is intentional.”

The irony of having two live albums in circulation at a time when he’s been unable to hit the road to perform isn’t lost on Adjuah. But he’s more fixated on the future anyway. That includes devoting time to his role as a Black Indian chief in his birthplace of New Orleans, a tradition passed down by his grandfather and his uncle, jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr. (Adjuah now spends most of his time in Los Angeles.)

“Most people know about the cultural expression of the Black Indian community, and the chieftains that come from the Black tribes in Louisiana,” Adjuah says. “But they don’t know about the advocacy work and all of the things that you do on a day-to-day level to make sure that the community, the elders, and the youth have the things that they need. So I’m working on this traditional music so that I can gift it to the young ones who are coming up in that neighborhood and the community. That’s what’s coming down the pipeline for me in the short term. The chief’s going back to New Orleans and doing the work.”