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Arts + CultureMusicAndré 3000, Suzanne Ciani, and the evolving creative mind

André 3000, Suzanne Ciani, and the evolving creative mind

What happens when an artist swerves? How does a trailblazer stay relevant after 40 years? Two shows raised satisfying answers.

It’s surprising how many people still can’t wrap their heads around André 3000’s latest project, New Blue Sun. When the Outkast rapper announced he was finally releasing a solo album that the world has anxiously anticipated since as far back as 2006, hip-hop heads thought it was gonna be, what else? A rap album. But they were damn near offended to find out that it was to be a spiritual jazz record instead. And in fact, it’s very good at that, but you’re more likely to find rap cats who’ll tell you that they “still don’t really know what to think about his jazz album,” than have bothered to hear from the man himself about the method to his madness. 

André has been incredibly forward in describing this new creative endeavor, how meeting multi-instrumentalist and LA underground jazz scene fixer Carlos Niño helped him harness his passion—and prowess—on the flute, into what would become New Blue Sun. “It drove me to say it in a bigger way,” he said about their union to the crowd at Independent, where he performed Feb.24. The show was part of the Indy’s 20th anniversary slate and the evening was capping off a three night run in San Francisco that also saw André and company playing multiple sets at Bimbo’s 365 in North Beach earlier in the week. 

“This is not a ‘show’ per se,” André explained, noting that the music that he, Niño on percussion, guitarist Nate Mercereau, keyboardist Surya Botofasina, and drummer Deantoni Parks were playing, was a largely improvised take on New Blue Sun. “We’re making it up as we go along,” he said, in a spoken voice so endearing and iconic, that even Q-Tip would melt when hearing it. 

Improvisation was definitely at the core of the evening, as André would frequently take his time picking from dozens of different flutes in a veritable jumbo unfurled quiver of them that lay behind him; letting inspiration strike him in the moment before making his choice. He played a recorder, he played an EWI (electronic woodwind instrument, for the uninitiated), he played a uniquely crafted instrument that resembled an oboe, big flutes, little flutes, and loads of others that I’d never seen before in my life. His output was decidedly global and he also namechecked Alice Coltrane as s source of divine influence. 

Photo by Greg Chow

Niño—a free-minded musical spirit if there ever was one—played what felt like equally as many percussion instruments. Beyond the drums, there were chimes, bells, even a purple snake that made a wobbly sound. Childlike fun, pure creativity and whimsical improvisation were their guiding lights, something anyone should really not be surprised to be coming from the far, far weirder half of Outkast. Throughout the night, the overalls-clad frontman even encouraged the crowd to sing and shout whatever was on their mind. “Yeee! Yeee!” I bellowed to the beat a couple of times from the balcony—after all, this is Frisco. André gave us the freedom to feel as spontaneously expressive as he, Niño, Mercereau, Parks, and Botofasina were on stage, speaking to an ethos that’s been there all along for him if you think about it, and it deepened our connection to each other.

While Internet culture demands that André 3000 give us more rap songs, or at least play the melody to “Ms. Jackson” on one of those flutes, he’s harnessing his creativity in the way that it’s currently flowing through him, regardless of outside stimuli. He is very much a singular creative force and not that he needed to, but he’s earned the platform to do whatever he wants. If that means speak-singing in a quasi-Swahili tongue we’ve never heard of (“I just made that shit up,” he said) or genuinely looking like was making painstakingly tough decisions as to which flute to play next, then so be it. And whether it’s a flute or a microphone, he’s always superseded any limitations to an instrument. It’s more about what you put in it: Breath, intent, spirit, and vision. 

Later that night across town, Suzanne Ciani would be pushing the limits of an instrument that she basically put on the map, the Buchla 200E synthesizer, all under the grandeur of Grace Cathedral’s nearly 100 foot tall vaulted ceilings. Part of the 31st Noise Pop Festival, Ciani’s performance was celebrating the 40th anniversary of her groundbreaking 1982 album, Seven Waves. With the Buchla, Ciani pushed the limits of creativity in sound, mastering the way electronic signals moved within modules to create unprecedented aural pathways. She was the human embodiment of Ableton software decades before it ever existed.

Suzanne Ciani at her Buchla. Photo by Jon Bauer/Noise Pop

Studying the instrument at Berkeley, Mills and Stanford, her roots were forged in the Bay Area and her influence showed in the 800 capacity sold out crowd for the performance put on in conjunction with the immersive listening events series, Reflections. When Ciani first started playing the Buchla in the late ’60s and ’70s, she found that the climate wasn’t a friendly one for a woman, even one who helped shape the sound of the very machine she championed. But Ciani’s creative pursuit guided her directly through these walls to become one of the most important and influential touchstones of synthesizer music today. 

Her performance was serene, with a light projection on the Cathedral’s grand nave as the room did incredible work for these foundational electronic sounds. “This is all outside material from Seven Waves,” Ciani said before beginning her hour-long set. “These snippets come from the original multi-tracks from 40 years ago; the actual elements that went into that recording.”

Suzanne Ciani at Grace Cathedral, note Ciani at the bottom center. Photo by Jon Bauer/Noise Pop

Most people were seated in the church, but you could stand up and catch a glimpse of Ciani tweaking the variables of the Buchla with patch cables to create her magic. A mesmerizing sight, but far from a necessary one for this experience. For Grace Cathedral’s acoustics were sublime, with repeater speakers down the room bouncing the music into the expansive cathedral. There truly was no better room in the city to hear these gorgeous sounds floating into the spiritual ceilings; it felt like nothing short of a privilege to be here. Most of all, while Ciani debuted this music 40 years ago, it still sounded contemporary, groundbreaking even; a testament to the persistence of the creative mind. 

Harnessing different poles of creativity is what both André and Ciani did in San Francisco last month. He with his flutes and her with her synth. And they each found a unique sense of spirituality within that creativity. “Part of an instrument is what it can do and part of it is what you can do to it,” Ciani famously once said. Creativity flows through the human mind and how we innovate through music and art, is what makes the world a fascinating place in spite of its ills. There’s no short answer to how that process evolves, but there are mediums like André 3000 and Suzanne Ciani, who make sense of the world around us through music. And how they choose do that, is entirely up to them. Isn’t it beautiful?

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Adrian Spinelli
Adrian Spinelli
Adrian is a Brazilian-born, SF-based writer covering music, booze, festivals, and culture. Follow him on Twitter @AGSpinelli.

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