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Is André 3000 in his jazz era?

André 3000's "New Blue Sun Live" tour spent three nights at the Blue Note jazz club in New York.
Dervon Dixon
/
Courtesy of Blue Note
André 3000's "New Blue Sun Live" tour spent three nights at the Blue Note jazz club in New York.

Around halfway through a set during his Blue Note residency last Thursday, André 3000 took some time to survey his tools. The musician crouched over a rug arrayed with around a dozen varieties of the flute — the instrument that's come to symbolize the dramatic creative pivot that culminated in his 2023 instrumental opus New Blue Sun — plus assorted digital woodwinds. There was something devout in his posture, as though he was waiting for the moment to tell him what it wanted. The mostly seated audience at the intimate New York club watched with rapt attention as he settled on a Chinese gourd flute featuring a bulbous eye-catching sphere near the mouthpiece. Standing up, he blew a march-like pattern, soft yet insistent. Surya Botofasina, one of his core collaborators both on the album and an ongoing tour in support of it, added gentle washes of synth, and the piece — an improvised soundscape unique to that moment — gradually bloomed.

How exactly did we get here? More specifically, how did it somehow feel entirely logical to be sitting in one of NYC's most prestigious jazz clubs — a room where over the years I'd heard giants such as Ron Carter, McCoy Tyner, Roy Haynes and Chick Corea — as half of a chart-topping, Grammy-winning rap duo and a deeply attuned four-piece ensemble offered up an hour of searching, abstract and often flat-out gorgeous pieces, to an adoring crowd that seemed utterly content with the "no bars" disclaimer that André has provided for the entire New Blue Sun project? Put more simply, why does an André 3000 "jazz era" — a notion that might have seemed like a stretch a decade ago, when the dazzlingly proficient MC had just announced a splashy victory-lap reunion tour with his OutKast counterpart Big Boi — now register as something almost fated?

To answer these questions, it's worth first looking back at a hint André dropped on New Blue Sun itself. "I Swear, I Really Wanted to Make a 'Rap' Album but This Is Literally the Way the Wind Blew Me This Time," reads the title of the opening track. As he explained recently to NPR Music's Rodney Carmichael, the statement signifies that "this album is about wind and breathing," adding, "It is literally blowing me this way." So what breeze was he picking up on, and why did it guide him toward this particular musical zone?

A spiritual-jazz awakening

If you've been following jazz and its attendant trends and manifestations during the past decade or so, you may have felt a similar wind blowing, gently and fragrantly, on your own face. Maybe you've noticed the entrancing harp- and keyboard-scapes of Alice Coltrane wafting over the speakers at your favorite coffee shop. Or Pharoah Sanders' alternately soothing and searing epics playing between sets at a DJ night you're attending. Or the bins at your neighborhood record store overflowing with reissues of once-obscure '70s titles on musician-run labels like Black Jazz and Strata-East, and new releases by contemporary artists such as Shabaka Hutchings (who cameos on New Blue Sun) and Damon Locks, which hark back to the liberated spirit and multifaceted sound of the era, from roughly 1966 to 1976, that's now viewed as the Golden Age of so-called "spiritual jazz," when post-bop, free jazz, funk, gospel and textures from India and Africa mingled in a heady, uplifting swirl.

The spiritual-jazz-aissance started picking up steam around 2015 when, just months after appearing on Kendrick Lamar's epochal To Pimp a Butterfly, saxophonist Kamasi Washington unveiled The Epic, a triple-album love letter to that period. A zeitgeisty mood board soon crystallized around this aesthetic, also drawing in newly canonized elders such as Idris Ackamoor and the New Age–adjacent Laraaji. (As if on cue, I overheard namechecks of Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and "spiritual jazz" within minutes of lining up outside the Blue Note.) And while all of us critics, tastemakers, curious hipsters and old heads alike were closely monitoring these developments, André 3000 was doing the same right along with us.

In the OutKast days, he'd dropped plenty of hints that he was paying attention to jazz: a clearly John Coltrane-indebted cover of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things" and a skronky free-jazz tenor solo at the end of "She Lives in My Lap" (played by André himself) on 2003's The Love Below; a McCoy Tyner namecheck on "I Can't Wait," the Sleepy Brown hit from the following year. After OutKast's 2014 reunion dates, it became clear that a more holistic shift might be on the horizon, as André publicly confessed that he'd "felt like a sell-out" trotting out the hits for festival crowds. In 2017, attendees at the Vision Festival, New York's premier annual free-jazz gathering, spotted him checking out the scene and browsing the merch tables; two years later, the now-famous André 3000 flute sightings began, with the musician turning up in various cities blissfully playing his woodwinds in public for whoever wanted to listen.

From there, it's just a short hop to New Blue Sun. In interviews surrounding the album, André has described how in 2021, after a move to Venice Beach, he met local scenebuilder Carlos Niño, percussionist, co-producer and de facto musical director on the record. And where was Niño headed that same night? To perform at a celebration of Alice Coltrane, which André tagged along for. Also appearing there was fellow future New Blue Sun-er Botofasina, leading the in-house choir of Alice's former ashram. After the show, André told Niño that he had been listening to a lot of Alice Coltrane, and that he saw the coincidence as a "message." (There's that wind blowing again...) Sure enough, Alice would show up in the initial press notes for New Blue Sun, cited as an influence alongside Sanders and Laraaji. Speaking to NPR, he added other jazz heroes, such as connoisseur favorites Eric Dolphy and Yusef Lateef, to the mix.

Clearly a star, but also a searcher

But even as we acknowledge all of this cultural context, and log all these weighty namechecks, we can't lose sight of the key fact that separates André 3000 from these forebears. At the mic, he's indisputably a virtuoso, one of the most thrillingly agile and riotously witty MCs of our time; in instrumental improvised music, though, he's a curious novice. That's why characterizing New Blue Sun as any kind of jazz, a term that connotes deep mastery, seems iffy. Instead it's a document of a far more elemental, "beginner's mind" brand of improvisation. ("I'm actually listening to myself be a baby at something," he told GQ, explaining how, when sessions for New Blue Sun began, he was still figuring out how to operate the digital woodwinds that feature heavily on the album.)

André 3000 surrounded himself with around a dozen varieties of the flute, plus assorted digital woodwinds.
Dervon Dixon / Courtesy of Blue Note
/
Courtesy of Blue Note
André 3000 surrounded himself with around a dozen varieties of the flute, plus assorted digital woodwinds.

As it turns out, it's precisely this aspect that makes New Blue Sun so appealing as a live show. Spending time with the album — for this listener, deeply rewarding on a close listen, somewhat slippery and ephemeral otherwise — you have to take on faith André's sustained engagement in the endeavor. After all, it would have been perfectly plausible for him to meet these musicians, jam in the studio for a couple days, put out the record and move on. But at the Blue Note, it was powerfully clear how invested he still is in the process of improvising with his New Blue Sun squad — not as some kind of star attraction but as an earnest fellow searcher in a wholly collective, de-centered endeavor that has more in common with the swirling ambience of Miles Davis' In a Silent Way than anything in the accepted spiritual-jazz canon. Introducing Niño, Botofasina, guitarist Nate Mercereau (who, as André aptly noted to NPR, "hardly ever sounds like he's playing guitar" yet constantly adds intriguing sonic daubs and legato swells) and percussionist Deantoni Parks (who provided sturdy grounding on low-end toms as a counterpart to Niño's more textural contribution, heavy on various shakers and chimes) to the crowd at one point, he made a point of characterizing them as "legends."

Plenty of rappers — including GZA, Black Thought and Yasiin Bey — have graced the Blue Note stage in recent years and proceeded to ply their well-established trades. But we knew going in that that's not what was in store here, and, as a table-mate of mine who praised New Blue Sun's "tranquil, vibey" qualities before the show indicated, we were ready to meet André 3000 where he was. We weren't there to anoint him prematurely as some new figurehead of jazz, though he already sounded more assured on his various instruments onstage than on New Blue Sun; nor were we there to witness something so simple as a "detour from rapping," an idea he refuted during his many unassuming and at times disarmingly funny addresses from the stage. Instead, we simply basked in how present, how all-in he seemed during the process of spontaneous creation.

We're on this journey with him

From the start, André set a mood of near-ceremonial focus, walking through the crowd up to the stage holding an incense stick, which he then placed into a potted succulent that he set at the edge of the stage. Early-set versions of tracks from the record felt patient and immersive: "I Swear...," highlighted by a descending, melodica-esque digital-woodwind riff; "That Night In Hawaii When I Turned Into A Panther And Started Making These Low Register Purring Tones That I Couldn't Control ... Sh¥t Was Wild," as on the album, featuring André's purred "panther toning" vocals; and a set opener that sounded to me like "BuyPoloDisorder's Daughter Wears a 3000® Button Down Embroidered," with its cyclical, birdsong-like flute figure.

André 3000's band includes Carlos Niño, Surya Botofasina, Nate Mercereau and Deantoni Parks.
Dervon Dixon / Courtesy of Blue Note
/
Courtesy of Blue Note
André 3000's band includes Carlos Niño, Surya Botofasina, Nate Mercereau and Deantoni Parks.

But the show really achieved liftoff in the second half, when the band seemed to venture beyond the blueprint of the album. On one piece, André conjured intricate, busy riffs on a piccolo-sized flute; on another he improvised searchingly on a larger wood flute against the percussionists' elemental pulse and the subtlest of synth accents from Botofasina. And, in maybe the most inspired moment of the show, he used the same vocal cords that once belted out "Ms. Jackson" and "Hey Ya!" in a shocking and unprecedented way. Just before, Niño had asked the crowd to help generate some raw sonic material for the group's next piece. Attendees gamely offered up a series of whoops, hollers and other assorted mouth sounds, starting out tentative but soon engulfing the room. Mercereau sampled the din and stirred it back into the audio mix, creating a sort of warped ghost chorus that mingled with the real one. As the sound reached a busy, near-cacophonous peak, André stepped up to the mic, leaned in and emitted a deep, guttural growl, perfectly punctuating the exercise in impromptu vocal catharsis, and ushering in a wild foray by the full five-piece band.

So was any of this jazz, "spiritual" or otherwise? That really depends on how broad (or not) your definitions are, and honestly the answer may be beside the point. What's powerfully clear is that André 3000 is letting the wind blow him, answering the same call that compelled Alice Coltrane to embrace the harp as part of her celebrated inner journey, or John Coltrane to write his famed devotional suite, or Pharoah Sanders to speak through his tenor in otherwordly tongues. Those artists each reached the mountaintop in their own way, as did André himself in his former guise as a transformative genius of rap. In the New Blue Sun era, he's starting out from base camp once again. However far he ends up ascending, it's a rare pleasure to join him on the path.

Hank Shteamer has written about music for more than two decades, covering jazz, metal and other styles for a variety of outlets.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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