Down Beat - p.643.5 stars out of 5
-- "ANTHEM is a striking instrumental concoction that fiercely resists easy classification....Scott's latest constitutes a world of his own making..."
Personnel: Christian Scott (trumpet, cornet, flugelhorn, soprano trombone, piano); Matt Stevens (guitar); Walter Smith III (alto saxophone, tenor saxophone); Louis Fouch‚ (alto saxophone); Aaron Parks (piano, Fender Rhodes piano, synthesizer, bass synthesizer); Marcus Gilmore (drums).
Additional personnel: Brother J. (rap vocals).
Audio Mixers: Ron Davis; Seth Presant.
Recording information: Fantasy Studios, Berkeley, CA (01/26/2007-01/30/2007); G Studio Digital, Studio City, CA (01/26/2007-01/30/2007).
Anthem is, at least in part, a true emotional response to the continued suffering in 2007 of Christian Scott's fellow New Orleanians two years after Hurricane Katrina. It's a completely different record than its predecessor but even more forward looking, inclusive, and full of chancy moves. It begins somberly with the title track, which introduces something of a suite that includes the various themes of the entire album. The groove is there (thanks to the solid, skeletal drumming of Marcus Gilmore and bassist Esperanza Spalding, and later, Luques Curtis), but it's slow, the mood a bit darker. Whereas Rewind That had a late-night, after-hours relaxed vibe, Anthem feels different, from the very first notes of "Litany Against Fear" where the first eight bars of Aaron Parks' piano introduce something that might have come from a Philip Glass record. When the cymbals begin to shimmer, Spalding's four-note bassline and Matt Stevens' electric guitar enter just ahead of Scott's melody line, and the listener is taken into a mournful, somber world where what comes forth is not depressing, but beautifully elegiac, almost like a prayer though its dynamic is powerful, straightforward in movement, and bridges ascend from simple melody before returning as if to restate something affirmatively. It's a beautiful and moving. A tune like this one, as well as several others here, would not have been out of place on a Manfred Eicher produced ECM session, though the feel is never icy.
Anthem proceeds with "Void," a song that also uses Walter Smith III on tenor, playing in unison with and counterpoint to Scott. Once more, the tempo is slow, even halting, but the melody and harmonics in the tune -- in part because of the nearly metallic edginess of Stevens' guitar -- create a sonic space in the middle between the front line and rhythm section. "Anthem (Antediluvian Adaptation)" is the beginning of a suite that carries on for the rest of the album. It's a bit faster, a bit edgier, even darker, with a fine piano solo by Parks; its lyrical song-like feel is in sharp contrast to the tension created by Stevens' slow, menacing yet subdued guitar work. The rest of the album follows suit with strange and labyrinthine journeys along the way. There's the largely rhythmic "Re:" with killer hard bop blues played by Scott. The swinging little groover "Cease Fire" follows, driven by Parks' synth bass and a gorgeous, floating, two-horn melody by Scott and Louis Fouch‚ on a straight alto saxophone. Gilmore's drums are going to puzzle some people, because they are so minimal, playing just behind the beat, creating the feeling of a trance-like march into danger. They lay down beats hard, concentrating on the snare and bass drum, but it's an inverted shuffle, designed to accent melody, not play around it.
"Dialect" is an up-tempo, sinister, droning monster. Parks' lower register single-note piano introduces a harsh yet minimal line by Stevens preparing the listener for a progressively knotty front line by Scott and Fouch‚. Stevens solos first and it's full of stiletto edges as his fluid playing moves into overdrive before Scott ushers him out in his high register. "The Uprising" is almost transcendent. The interplay between Scott and Smith III's tenor is lovely yet still somewhat somber, as if moved to action by grief. "Katrina's Eyes" comes right from the blues. It's a bittersweet tune where sorrow, the remembrance of what was, and the sheer awe of what has transpired is ever present even as the desire for return asserts itself. The title is a double entendre: it refers to the all seeing eyes of the hurricane as it approached and looked back at what it left behind, and also to the calms between the two parts of the storm. The blues accented by Parks' Fender Rhodes is nearly serene, still even, as Scott's playing evokes deep emotion with a minimum of notes. The two horns in that bluesy intro fade and sing to one another as well as to the rhythm section and the listener. The knotty post-bop of "The 9" reflects Scott's knowledge of intricate harmony and keen sense of jazz melody in addition to jazz history. It's tough and moves with a three-horn front line -- without the guitar -- and is carried by Parks and a load of breakbeats from Gilmore. The closer, "Anthem's "Post Diluvial Adaptation" takes that melody and lets it rider under the tough hip-hop poetry by Brother J of X Clan. It sums up everything the album has been singing about into spoken language. It is an inseparable part of this disc, its closing chapter, with the band playing without the restraint offered on the theme's earlier incarnations, particularly in Scott's solo.
What it comes down to is a deeply moving, utterly odd and beautiful recording by Scott. His lyricism is deep; his bravery for putting out an album like this is celebratory, because it may be deeply misunderstood. He accomplishes in large part his desire to move jazz in a new direction, one that embraces all of his musical interests and allows him to remain, in his way, faithful to a tradition began in a place that has been devastated by a disaster unfathomable to anyone who hasn't lived through it. The grief, resilience, and ultimate celebration of this magical place called New Orleans by its musicians has been inspiring, as has the courage of its people. Scott has summed up in Anthem the sound of many individual voices, offered them as a gift to any who will listen. It's a generous and visionary recording, one that doesn't back away from what is difficult or nearly impossible to define. Anthem is the work of an artist who has fully arrived into his creative possibility, and yet points toward something mysterious and anticipatory in the process. Anthem approaches brilliance. ~ Thom Jurek