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Cultural Capital

André 3000 Has Two Dozen Flutes and a Vision

The crowd at the Blue Note on Wednesday night wouldn't have come to hear this music made by anyone else. That's what made it necessary.

André 3000 playing the Blue Note on Wednesday night. (Dervon Dixon)

I've been given the good seats at André 3000’s show at the Blue Note, on the first night of his residency, where he's performing the hippie jazz cuts from his leftward swerve of a woodwind album, "New Blue Sun." I'm at a table full of critics at the very foot of the stage, and we're all scribbling in notebooks, our phones in magnetic sleeves to prevent us from using them. When André takes the stage wearing his seersucker overalls, which he's called his "adult baby clothes," he's looming right over me. He invites us, if we feel like making noise, if we feel like crying, to feel free.

"New Blue Sun" consists of a series of improvisational experiments by André 3000 and a troupe of Californian jazz musicians, including improvising on a digital woodwind he had never played before, being a "baby." It sounds like you might expect of a musician on a new instrument—on it, he grasps for rhythm and harmony like a climber on a sheer cliff face: Finding it missing it, progressing. But as they did on the record, on stage at the Blue Note, the musicians around him, veterans of the Los Angeles jazz scene, expectantly, calmly, construct a world for him to play in, on the fly. "The things we're doing, we'll never do again," André said grandly to introduce the Blue Note show. By the end, André is on a practice chanter from a bagpipe, and guitarist Nate Mercereau is strumming a sanshin; they said they just bought the instruments that day.

Playing at the Blue Note, André 3000 tells us from the stage, is nothing but the latest in a series of stops on a windblown journey that began when he picked up the flute years ago, during his time in New York. He would get sighted practicing his flute around the city, until he moved to California for what was supposed to be a brief period, he recalls on Wednesday night. After arriving in Los Angeles, he says he met Carlos Niño, the graybeard experimental jazz guru that's playing percussion, which André calls "the thunder and lightning," on stage behind him. "People told me I'd be running into you," André said Niño told him when their spirits collided at the luxury organic supermarket chain Erewhon. 

Niño invited André to a show that night, and from there he fell into the cadre of Manson Family-esque performers who make up the Leaving Records label. A few serendipities later, André explained—on a day he happened to be surrounded by LA's avant garde elite, André opened a digital wind instrument and played his first ever notes on it, and there just happened to be a sound engineer with recording equipment—and here I am with my notebook. "I didn't mean to become 'that flute dude,'" he said. That elision did not gel with the scene I was in, gathered as we were at the Blue Note, with our notebooks, looking up from them as cocktails were delivered to us between songs, so retrograde that it could only have been generated by the burning intention of everyone involved. And the words "Outkast," "rich," and "famous" are markedly absent from the residency's origin story as explained by André.

I'm just beginning to feel ridiculous, as the ensemble plays a meandering introduction. But then the music locks in: André steadies his playing, his notes come out precise, even sage-like, and keyboardist Surya Botofasina is constructing harmonic scenes around it all, pushing the plot forward. The more atonal elements supplied by André and the bleeps and bloops of the samples Mercereau's guitar is triggering seem not just to play their parts, but are the tip of the spear of the whole ensemble. But then I lose it again; the music that had just been filmic blurs out of focus, and my panic seeps back in. 

What are we doing here? Here, at an apocalyptic time for music criticism, luxuriating in this Blue Note seat, writing in this notebook, I feel like I'm playing make believe, pretending that any of us would have gathered here for this music if it weren't being made by one of the men who made "ATLiens." It feels, terrifyingly, like a great act of condescension, like we've all come here to look down on André 3000, the titanically accomplished artist, to put our hands on our knees and coo at him, like he really is an adult baby: Wow, you learned how to play the flute? That's sooo special, you did such a good job! Best New Music.

Then, I see something that destroys my worries. All along, as André has been playing, he has been kneeling at and choosing seemingly on the fly from what can only be called an arsenal of flutes on stage. Somehow, I had not noticed the pile at his feet, I had been too focused on his face. I’m trying to tell you that it’s a comical number of flutes, most of them big, heavy, and wooden, some of them digital. They weren’t on display to flaunt his dedication—if I hadn't had the good seats, I wouldn’t have seen them.

André 3000's arsenal of flutes. (Hell Gate)

I realized, to my shame, that I was relearning the value of experimentation. Percussionist Deantoni Parks would provide a mood, a platform—something martial, or serene, and André, Niño, and Merceraeu would play, yes, but then by playing, they would find something to say—some way to blur the boundaries between their synthesized sounds and samples, and the rumbling and singing of their acoustics. And Botofasina would underline their sentiments, and you could remember that these acts of creation, however halting, can sound sacred.

I'm ashamed to be so worried about my own pretension when André 3000 is walking around this Earth with two dozen flutes in a fucking bindle. He is serious. The flute, I see, is only a signifier for a man who felt he needed to dedicate himself to transforming his life. I become, at once, finally open to the truth that this is a man who is dead serious about relearning how to live life itself through the flute. 

Yes, it is inevitable that if you're André 3000 and you're playing the flute in the middle of a Starbucks, people are going to videotape you and put it on the internet. But that's just not a good enough reason not to do it anyway. Because André 3000 can do that. He is taking the ascetic necessities of art-making more seriously than we who gawk at and question it, and teaching us,if we at some point  need to figure out our own way to do the same. 

Of course it's true that only a sliver of the people who care about this music would care if it wasn't André 3000 making it. Of course it takes having a Grammy-winning rap career to get the world to watch someone learn how to play an instrument from scratch, watch him practice where he's not supposed to, to get L.A. jazz musicians to make space for a novice. But we needed André 3000 to make us watch him learn something new, to demonstrate the raw possibility of rebelling against the world's gaze. And you can't deny that he's gotten a lot better at the flute.

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