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Album Cover via André 3000/Instagram


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Chris Robinson is gettin’ crazy with the Cheese Wiz.


About a week ago, I overheard a record store discussion about André 3000’s solo album New Blue Sun. The clerk behind the counter asked another other clerk: “have you heard the new André?”

“Yeah.”

“What did you think?”

“I liked it—just a kind of cool ambient record.”

“Yeah, I’ve only heard part of it, but the people freaking out about it because it’s jazz flute improv just haven’t heard enough, or any, ambient music.”

I wasn’t shocked when I heard that New Blue Sun was an eighty-seven-minute freely improvised new age avant-garde jazz album without rapping. When I wrote a piece on the best bass clarinet boom bap for this site I nearly included André 3000’s 17-minute jazz bass clarinet workout “Look Ma No Hands” (he legitimately handles the unwieldy instrument as well as many professional jazz musicians). The only reason he didn’t make the list was because there was no way I could shoehorn the track into any definition of hip-hop.

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I knew that André 3000 had just made a guest appearance on Carlos Niño & Friends’ latest epic I’m Just Chillin on Fire. So I was surprised, but it also made sense in a way I can’t quite explain. It clearly took immense courage to put out a record that he believes represents where he’s currently at, when he knows it may alienate many of his fans.

For those who wanted a different album and are disappointed or don’t know what to do with New Blue Sun because they haven’t heard enough ambient music to have a frame of reference, I get it. I’ve got several favorite artists who haven’t dropped anything in well over a decade. I’d be upset too if their next album was parsecs removed from the rest of their catalog. I dunno, Neutral Milk Hotel goes gamelan, or Karp does klezmer. Actually, I’d check those out with morbid curiosity, but I’d probably still be disappointed.

It’s also a big ask for a great chunk of André 3000’s fans to be versed in the somewhat niche musical corners that contain Brian Eno’s Music for Airports, Alice Coltrane’s devotional music, and the contemporary thriving scene of experimental jazz, electronica, and ambient music in Los Angeles.

In addition to as much jazz and experimental hip hop as I can find, my musical taste Venn diagram happens to include Eno, Alice Coltrane, and the L.A. scene. So while the artist’s name at the top of New Blue Sun might have been a surprise, the musical world it lives in is part of a deeper tradition that I’m familiar with – which colors my reception in ways that listeners with different but equally broad musical knowledge might not share.

While this may be an André 3000 solo album, it’s a collective record through and through. One of the album’s main facilitators is percussionist and producer Carlos Niño, who is a pillar of L.A.’s experimental jazz and ambient scene. Most of the album finds André joined by a trio: Niño (who is also credited with playing “plants”), Nate Mercereau on guitar, and Surya Botofasina on synths. Other tracks include other frequent Niño collaborators drummer Deantoni Parks, Matthewdavid on “mycelial electronics,” V.C.R. on violin and effects, Diego Gaeta on piano, Jesse Peterson on bass, and vocalist Mia Doi Todd.

If the name on the record was anybody other than André 3000, it would be easy for me to fall out of the usual mode of focusing on “who is doing what.” But since he is the marquee name, it was sometimes hard for me to listen to anything other than his flute playing, which in the swirl of electronics and synths can occasionally be hard to find – especially because he’s often playing a digital wind instrument (DWI). On the instances I was able to absorb the music holistically, it immediately reminded me of free jazz groups like the Art Ensemble of Chicago: any sound can come from any musician at any time. It matters less who made the sound than how and when and what it contributed.

On the 12-minute opener “I Swear, I Really Wanted to Make a ‘Rap’ Album but This is Literally the Way the Wind Blew Me This Time” André’s bandmates set up a synth landscape with shimmering bells and chimes. Bird chirps fly through the stereo field. The rhythm is slow. André waits three minutes before coming in on DWI, playing a repeated bouncing figure that’s childlike in its innocence, naivete, and playfulness. Botofasina and Mercereau add in the harmony that André implies with his melody. On the few times when André strays from the key his bandmates have his back, recontextualizing the background to make the notes fit. André reportedly recorded this and the other songs with DWI twenty minutes after he took it out of the box for the first time. It sounds like it, as a DWI has almost endless tonal and sonic capabilities and it was obvious that he had just only begun to understand its potential. Even so, his playing is inventive and musical.

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André’s best playing comes when he shifts to wooden flutes. He pulls out a contrabass flute on the ayahuasca trip inspired “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.” For much of the ten minutes it’s just flute and percussion with synths in the deep background. Niño’s and Parks’s drums feel as deep and natural as a heartbeat. At times André finds a funky melody and rhythm he can’t let go of and obsessively repeats it for as long as it feels good. Even though the context is different, it’s right out of jazz guitarist Grant Green’s playbook.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that André 3000 and his fellow musicians are coming from and melding multiple musical traditions. On “Ghandi, Dalai Lama, Your Lord & Savoir J.C./Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and John Wayne Gacy” there’s a few zaps from a dub ray gun; 3000 sends his flute through a delay to create a very repetitive, minimalistic rhythmic pattern a la Philip Glass. Pianist Diego Gaeta lays down crystalline chords that hang in the air, recalling the master ambient composer Harold Budd. Mia Doi Todd’s vocalizations and huffs take me to composer and dancer Meredith Monk’s voice works. It’s a mélange of voices and influences coming together, each of which takes turns as the dominant figure. The cut is also the darkest, trippiest, through-the-looking-glass stretch of the album.

The traditions and influences in “Ghandi” and throughout New Blue Sun will surely open up paths for its listeners to get into any number of new musical worlds, from free jazz and minimalism to ambient and devotional music. It will take them on a nonstop bullet train to Pharoah Sanders, Hubert Laws, and Lonnie Liston Smith. Those who like the record’s meditative aspects will want to check out Alice Coltrane’s Transcendence and her other spiritual music, while the people who enjoyed the collective improvisation should get hip to John Coltrane’s Ascension (although trigger warning, it’s not a “pretty” or relaxing album). For people who want their electronic improvisation a little funkier, go to Sun Ra’s big band acid funk masterpiece Lanquidity.

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Then it’s straight on to contemporary albums like clarinetist Angel Bat Dawid’s The Oracle and the Carlos Niño & Friends albums on Leaving Records and the International Anthem label. (Just as Niño himself directly leads one to Miguel Atwood Ferguson to Kendrick to jazz pianist Robert Glasper.) And before they know it, the new jazz initiates might then find themselves headed to minimalism: Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, Harold Budd’s The Pavilion of Dreams, and Terry Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air. At this point, André 3000 will have transformed the listening taste and habits of untold numbers of people who never knew such music existed. It might be a cliché to say, but New Blue Sun is a gateway drug.

The main question for me, is what will this gateway hold for New Blue Sun’s listeners? Who will step through it and which way will they go? In my case, it led me straight into my garage to look at the chunks of bamboo sitting around and promptly Google “how to make a bamboo flute.” It’s also leading me to revisit artists who inspired the album who I’ve not heard in a long time or are just now finding.

Perhaps most importantly, New Blue Sun is making me think about how we approach an album, especially one we were not expecting to hear. None of us can get rid of our personal taste, preferences, and biases. It’s impossible to listen objectively. The unexpected – in this case New Blue Sun, forces us to reckon with those biases and see what they might be preventing us from getting into. If “free jazz” or “solo flute” or any of the shorthand ways to describe this album causes an immediate negative reaction, checking it out is a way to see if there is a way into free jazz or solo flute. If there is, great. If there isn’t, that’s also great. In this way, New Blue Sun, among other things, offers the means for considering other modes of thinking, listening, and appreciating—even if that means appreciating but not liking—the different and unexpected.

After listening to New Blue Sun several times and then reading interviews with 3000 and reviews and think pieces about the album, I’ve come to find that it’s not just a surprise, a cultural event that even my mom knows about, and an album full of quiet and subtle beauty. It is an object lesson in understanding expectations, how our expectations shape our reception, and dealing with the music that is at hand on its own terms. It will undoubtedly lead some listeners to new musical avenues and prompt others to reconsider and even question how they arrive at their own personal taste.

For the rest of us, New Blue Sun is one more album to add to our own expanding go-to list of ambient, quiet, yet deep avant-garde jazz records. And for André 3000? Who knows which way the wind will blow him next time. Whichever direction he goes, hopefully he’ll reach his destination a little bit sooner.


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