Christian Scott and "The Eraser"

I remember way back when I would put an album down when I didn’t see enough standards on the track listing.  I had a weird phase in college where I wouldn’t do much of anything unless there was some utility to it.  There was so much work to do – so much to learn and practice – and I was so far behind all the time that I couldn’t waste a moment.  Even when I was just listening to music there had to be some sort of knowledge accumulating with each passing beat.  Hence the standards.

If I had a collection of music full of standards then I could always put a record on while I was walking to class.  Queue up a couple versions of “Anthropology” before a jury or listen to the Wes Montgomery album I was transcribing for my lessons.  Never a wasted moment.

Sure.

I started listening differently when I started writing my own music.  I started listening to more music – more classical music, pop songwriters, and modern composers.  I started listening for melodies and not for licks.  Textures and voicings.  Devices and arrangements.  Now I’m not sure I even listen like that.

It sounds odd but now I’ll often go a week without listening to a standard tune at all, and when I do it’s sort of incidental.  It took a while but now my taste skews toward the genre-bending improvisers who may play a few standards in their live performances, but shirk the term “jazz.”  The Nicholas Paytons, Aaron Parks, Ambrose Akinmusires, Brian Blades, Ben Monders, and Julian Lages.

It was in my senior year of college that a friend first introduced me to the trumpeter and composer Christian Scott by way of his album Yesterday You Said Tomorrow and, more particularly, his cover of “The Eraser.”  “The Eraser” is the sort of song that a musician puzzles over the way that I imagine a serious baker puzzles over a plain bagel with butter.  There’s nothing here but the simplest of ingredients, so why is it so good?  A few degrees hotter, a couple minutes longer, a more watchful eye.  A couple clicks slower, a little more freedom for the bass player, a shorter solo section here and a little restraint there.

I usually listen to “The Eraser” the same way.  The moon sits over the street lamps and high rises of Queens Blvd and the lightbulb spills out from under the orange shade on my desk.  I put on one of Scott’s newer records and let it run down.  Eventually, it ends, the “shuffle” feature takes over, and the weird syncopated, static-laden piano chords fill the headphones followed by brushes on a snare drum and a percussive and repetitive bass.  A lone trumpet breathing melodies through a mute over skipping vinyl.

As light wavers, the band emerges from the low-fi crackle and moves with the trumpet.  Sticks on the ride cymbal, a wandering right hand, elastic strings greasing against ebony, and air, unbound from brass, tumbling ahead of it all in bursts.

Christian Scott’s music is often odd and often complex, but in “The Eraser," he works with tools most freshmen composition majors feel comfortable employing.  Three or four chords, octaves, a simple melody, and a little syncopation.  But he uses them in just the right measure.  Watches them carefully.  Adjusts the recipe.  Cooks just a few degrees hotter and for a minute or two longer.  I listen to the static rustle in the headphones and wonder why is it so good?

When I was a sophomore in college and the album was still new, I might never have picked it up.  A few years after that I  listened to it straining for devices and orchestrations and puzzled over how little I found.   Why is it so good?  Now I just listen to it and watch the orange light splash on the cracks in the plaster above the map of Queens on my wall.  I close my eyes and try to reach out and grab the trumpet.  I put my feet up on the radiator by the window sill as the raw explosion of improvisation emerges from the dry crackly groove of 1990s hip-hop on AM radio.   Who cares?