Russell Gunn is no longer a young gun. The thoughtful East St. Louis–bred trumpeter returns home with an advanced degree in life and Ethnomusicology. Over the five-year span of his four-volume Ethnomusicology series, Gunn has been celebrated, then dumped, by Warner/Atlantic Recordings and has lost a high school hustling buddy to a tragic death. Through it all, he has remained true to his commitment to open mindedness and versatility. “I found that if you have your stuff together, everything else will follow. I could walk into the Lincoln Center band and play that stuff as well as anyone there and I could also walk into a hip-hop session and do the same.”
The Ethnomusicology series began as a very ambitious effort to “marry not just jazz and hip-hop, but all the music of the African Diaspora,” as Gunn puts it. The albums all feature jazz melodies backed by electronic beats and African nuances. Volume 1, which is the most joyous and welcoming of the first three volumes, celebrates creativity and genesis; it grabbed Gunn a Grammy Award nomination for Best Jazz Performance in 1999. As a reward for that recognition, his label, WEA unceremoniously dropped him after just one album. “They didn’t do shit and then let me go.”
Disgusted with the process, Gunn signed with Canadian label Justin Time and produced Ethnomusicology, Volume 2, his kiss-off to WEA and the music industry. “I think the cover of that album says it all,” remarks Gunn: a marionette in black face posed in front of a darkly lit American flag. But beyond its cover, Volume 2 took on darker material and made more explicitly political statements.
Volume 3 transcended political diatribes to create Gunn’s own brand of Taoist philosophy and became a more personal statement. Taking on the persona of streetwise hipster, Gunn pays tribute to his East St. Louis roots and to his childhood friend, John Wicks, naming tunes after both. Wicks, who was very close to Gunn, died tragically during his honeymoon. “John was real street smart, a true hustler in the good sense.” Gunn fondly remembers the two teens working the Celebrity Room in East St. Louis to make money for transportation and food; Gunn played the trumpet and Wicks passed the hat around. Rounding out Volume 3 is a haunting version of Billie Holiday’s famous anti-lynching statement, “Strange Fruit.” The guitar intro sounds more like Metallica than Wes Montgomery. Gunn’s own “Stranger Fruit” follows in the same vein, closing out the dark phase of Ethnomusicology.
The newly released Volume 4: Live in Atlanta, is like a field trip out of the classroom, and showcases a lighter ambience than the previous volumes. “I’m extremely happy to have that [Ethnomusicology] series over. A lot of people had never heard that band live,” comments Gunn in his laid-back style, “so a live album was a necessity.” Ethnomusicology was a live project before WEA ever came calling, and Volume 4 is a refreshing update to the series. It features great jazz, blues, and hip-hop playing from Gunn backed up by a tight band of Ethnomusicology veterans. The slow bump of “More Sybil’s Blues” gives us a hint of what Miles Davis might have sounded like jamming with Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies. There are no political statements; the album simply showcases Russell Gunn and crew doing what they do. Set closer “Shiva the Destroyer” riffs over a swirling hip hop beat, reprising the first track of Volume 1 and bringing the series full circle.
Fresh off touring with artists as disparate in style as crooner Harry Connick, Jr. and rapper Cee-Lo, Gunn Fu is back in town. He’s wrapped up his studies in Ethnomusicology and is ready to pursue a new direction. “I’m not exactly sure what that will be yet, but I do know that there won’t be anything predictable or simple about it.” He’s currently into hip-hop producer Timbaland, whom he calls “the Duke Ellington of hip hop composers.” Gunn is looking to “marry southern hip hop beats to more abstract jazz melodies.” He points to Aaliyah’s first record, early Outkast, and Ludacris as current influences alongside lifetime trumpet influences Lee Morgan and Clifford Brown. He’ll bring a new band to his first Jazz at the Bistro engagement and will play some Ethnomusicology tunes and “some new stuff.” If his sets resemble the funky new live album, the normally polite “listening room” at the Bistro will pulse like a hip-hop house party.
If Gunn could collaborate with one artist, KRS-One leads the list. He also has tremendous respect for fellow trumpet man Nicholas Payton, who was scheduled to play the Bistro this season but cancelled. Payton has also taken his act electric recently with his Sonic Trance project for Warner Brothers. “Nick is one of the baddest cats to ever walk the earth. He can play not just trumpet, but piano and drums in every style as well as anybody and real authentic.” For fans who want to look deeper into his music, Gunn recommends his 1999 High Note outing, Love Requiem, an expanded acoustic suite about a love affair gone sour. Unfortunately, it received limited distribution so you’ll really have to dig for it.
As for coming back to St. Louis, Gunn is happy to return, his only concern being “everybody wants to get on the guest list,” he laughs. In between sets at the Bistro, he’ll be sure to fill his childhood taste for fried rice. “I have to make sure to get a St. Paul sandwich.” Where is the best fried rice in town? “Everybody will tell you the best is the one right around the corner from where they grew up.” What better way to cap off a long personal, professional, and musical journey than to come home and enjoy a nostalgic rip through your favorite food?
Russell Gunn and Ethnomusicology play Jazz at the Bistro from Wednesday, December 1 through Saturday, December 4, two sets nightly at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m.