NEXT Collective Reimagines Contemporary Tracks
Posted 3/27/2013

The NEXT Collective challenges preconceived notions about standards. The ensemble’s impressive debut, Cover Art (Concord), has generated a buzz among critics and fans with its jazz interpretations of songs from the worlds of hip-hop, r&b, pop and indie rock.

The project began as a way to promote three newly signed Concord artists—tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, guitarist Matthew Stevens and alto saxophonist Logan Richardson—and in the process of reworking contemporary compositions, the members of the NEXT Collective developed a cohesive, cooperative vision.

On Feb. 26 (the day Cover Art was released), the group celebrated with an hour-plus set at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge. “I don’t want to hear you guys playing popular tunes from my generation—I want to hear what you guys are feeling, what you grew up with,” said Concord Senior A&R Director Chris Dunn during the band’s sound check.

The group kicked off the set with the leadoff track from Cover Art, Little Dragon’s “Twice.” Richardson drew from his Kansas City musical roots, including Charlie Parker and jump blues bandleader Jay McShann—with whom he’s previously worked—in his arrangement. Richardson improvised a round of lyrical exchanges with Smith’s tenor, continuing that interplay as pianist Gerald Clayton’s subtle chords framed much of his melodic alto solo. Against the backdrop of drummer Jamire Williams’ straightforward 4/4 beat on drums and guitarist Matthew Stevens’ soulful rhythms, Richardson’s sax talked the blues that night as he interpreted Little Dragon singer Yukimi Nagano’s searing vocals.

Clayton and Smith stuck close to the original compositions in their arrangements of D’Angelo’s “Africa” and Dido’s “Thank You,” both of which highlighted their penchant for lush, infectious melodies. With their slight harmonic shifts and surprise solos, the musicians’ less-is-more approach conveyed a level of maturity and control.

On his arrangement of N.E.R.D’s “Fly Or Die,” bassist Ben Williams retained the energy and bravado of the rock-inspired original with driving chords on acoustic bass, following Jamire Williams’ stirring drum solo opening. Ben Williams framed much of the tune with repeated Ahmad Jamal-inspired motifs alongside Clayton’s piano and the muted trumpet of Christian Scott (Christian aTunde Adjuah).

DownBeat sat down with the members of the NEXT Collective—Richardson, Smith, Stevens, Clayton, Ben Williams, Jamire Williams and special guest Scott—shortly after wrapping up their sound check at Le Poisson Rouge. Pianist Kris Bowers, who is currently touring with vocalist José James, was linked into the conversation via Skype.

This album seems like a rite of passage. What has it been like to come together on this project?

Gerald Clayton: People will say, “This is going to be a great year for you,” but it doesn’t feel like you’re doing anything different than the previous year. There might be some attention around a certain project. We’ve been on the same path from day one trying to figure out what else to play and how to make music together. It is exciting to have a project where we can all come together, and we all have so much love and respect for each other’s musical visions.

Kris Bowers: We have such strong ideas of who we are musically and what we’re into. At the same time, we’re very selfless with the way we approach music. That comes from being a leader. These guys have found a way to be that way with their own bands. They all brought that to the session.

Talk about the process of coming up with specific movements for your arrangement of Little Dragon’s “Twice.”

Logan Richardson: I try to keep everything highly organic. There’s a lot of thinking that goes into it but there’s still a stream of thought that doesn’t really require any thinking. If I’m just keeping my eyes and my ears open in my surroundings around me, then I’m able to pay attention to the people that I’m surrounded by. Rhythmically, in terms of the influence that I have musically, it’s so broad that I couldn’t really narrow anything down. There’s got to be a rhythm, the beat has got to be urban—none of us came up swing dancing [laughs]! The influence just involves society, whatever musical training and influence I’ve had, and the specific members of the group that fill it out.

How did Jay-Z & Kanye West’s “No Church In The Wild” become a part of this project?

Christian Scott (Christian aTunde Adjuah): When I heard what most of the other guys were doing, some of it was indie rock stuff, and I had dabbled in that. I wanted to go in a bit of a different direction. When I first heard that bass line and realized what key it was in, I didn’t really want to move it. But I found out Ben Williams was on the [track] so I knew he was going to be able to chop that up.

Ben Williams: It’s still not easy [laughs].

CS: I know it’s not easy, but if anybody could do it, I knew he could it. So once we got into the sessions and they played through it one time, we tried to figure out whether or not we wanted to retread it in the same rhythmic sense, or if Jamire was going to really put his ideas on it. It was interesting to see how Ben navigated the line and to see what Jamire was putting on it because that line has a lot of momentum, but it’s interesting the way that Jamire can break it up. It had looseness from listening to a lot of the other material.

What did you channel into in order to bring the emotional heft in your version?

CS: I think we’re all trying to compel when we’re playing. Based on everyone’s pedigree here, all of these guys have done a ton of playing and have been on the road for a very long time. A lot of times they’re channeling those things without it being a linear approach, like, “Is this going to turn into a sonnet?” For me, it was about being in a space with these guys and getting the opportunity to really just deal with some new material in a different way. It ended up being really captivating because of the cast of characters.

When we first started rehearsing it, I kind of knew I was going to be in trouble because [Gerald] was throwing some notes at me. Lots of times, you’ll play with younger musicians than guys in our age range and you can hear that they’re changing harmony up or giving you some different things, but you can’t hear the through line to where it is that they’re going. I thought what [Gerald] did on it was really masterful. It pulled a little bit more out of me than you might get from a document that I would do on my own just because I was off-balance.

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The NEXT Collective performing at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge on Feb. 26 (Photo: John Rogers/johnrogersnyc.com)

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