Christian Scott and Vic Mensa Debut New Music in 'The Refined Players'

Christian Scott and Vic Mensa Debut New Music in 'The Refined Players'

In the latest of 1800 Tequila’s musical collaborations, the jazz trumpeter and rapper came together to form a new jazz band, premiering their music in a documentary series in partnership with Billboard.

In the latest of 1800 Tequila’s musical collaborations, the jazz trumpeter and rapper came together to form a new jazz band, premiering their music in a documentary series in partnership with Billboard.

Text: Christina Cacouris

Down in New Orleans, in the land of dreams, Christian Scott and Vic Mensa are sitting in a little room behind Preservation Hall, a quaint jazz club beloved by Louis Armstrong in the storied French Quarter. They’re waiting to go on stage to perform a song they’ve written for the occasion, marking the end of a long journey for Scott: he’s sourced musicians from across the country to start a new jazz band for The Refined Players, a five-part docuseries presented by 1800 Tequila and Billboard, who sent him on a quest to find jazz’s best and brightest to come together, to remix and refine their sound, culminating in a performance in Scott’s native New Orleans.

Mensa, a rising star on the hip-hop scene who’s currently on tour with Jay-Z, may seem like an unlikely addition to the primarily jazz-based band. But, the two insist, jazz and hip-hop have always been intertwined. “They’re the same culture,” explains Scott. “Most of the core tenants that you will find in hip-hop music in terms of the improvisational aspects of it, they’re the same concepts, it’s just different approaches.”

“A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory is one of the most representative albums of what hip-hop is,” says Mensa. “[And] it’s all jazz. That’s all jazz sounds. Hip-hop and jazz have always been really hand in hand; Miles Davis did a hip-hop album. Herbie Hancock did hip-hop albums. Those of us that really study the game, we know that hip-hop and jazz are one and the same.”

In addition to Scott and Mensa, the Refined Players band includes Joe Dyson, Weedie Braimah, Joe Harley, Elena Pinderhughes and Derrick Hodge, each of whom are from different parts of the country, ranging from Berkeley to Chicago to New York. Yet, though their backgrounds vary greatly, the group manages to strike a cohesive chord.

“We all speak blues,” says Scott. “The old people of New Orleans would say whatever you’re creating, if you sprinkle a little blues on it, it’s going to grow. The connective tissue between those spaces and all of those different cultural influences all of these different perspectives, and acumen as musicians, really comes out of a space of: are you a truth teller or not? It’s going to fit in and it’s going to fit within the confines of this environment that we created. If it’s not real, it’s going stick out like a sore thumb.”

Mensa agrees. “One of the main takeaways that I want people to get from this conversation or this project in its entirety, is that we’re not really from that different of backgrounds,” he says.[Christian] just plays trumpet; I rap. He from the neighborhood in Louisiana; I’m from the neighborhood in Chicago. Weedie’s Ghanaian; I’m Ghanaian. We’re all people from the same struggle, from the same situation, just in different places. We’re not worlds apart like they would have you think just because I make hip-hop primarily and they play jazz primarily.”

When the two finally make their way to the stage, it would seem as if they’d known each other forever. “I have a special affinity for playing with a band of jazz musicians,” says Mensa, whose first band in high school was primarily composed of jazz players. The whole group, disparate as they may appear on paper, are on stage completely at ease with one another. When he takes to the stage, decked head-to-toe in black with striking gold jewelry and his trumpet to match, Scott introduces each of the members with pride and affection, a feeling that’s especially strong when he comes to Pinderhughes, announcing that the talented flutist is only 21 years old.

“What was most important to me was to identify and find musicians that were going to have the ability to create, and that felt real,” says Scott backstage. “Obviously, we could find musicians that could play a b-flat minor chord; but some people, when they touch the piano and they play the b-flat minor chord, it’s informed by what they endured, what they’ve seen, what their aspirations are. The other people that play the b-flat minor chord, it’s purely academic.”

“I don’t say that to place a value distinction on one being better than the other,” he continues. “But for this environment, I needed the person that when they played the b-flat minor chord, you could hear their experience in the chord. Because if it didn’t do that, then it wasn’t going to match what he was going to do,” he says, looking at Mensa.

As the band plays, the room is abuzz with energy, with the feeling of the players completely in their element so strong it’s palpable. Though they’re young, as Mensa takes to the stage and injects his rap verses before giving way to floating song, it seems Louis Armstrong was right about Preservation Hall: “That’s where you’ll find all the greats.”

Watch the trailer for the Refined Players series below, premiering at Billboard

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