Joe Kohen for The New York Times
I first heard Ambrose Akinmusire sometime during his Steve Coleman Apprentice Phase -- every young musician of his ilk seems to have one -- sometime in the last decade. (Could it have been around this time? I dunno. Maybe.) Whatever specific impression he made has faded, but I do recall filing his name away for future ref.
As for the first time I really heard Ambrose Akinmusire, that’s clearer. It was during the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, which I covered in Los Angeles. During the semifinals there were 10 competitors, each playing a few pieces with an expert house rhythm section. Almost everyone sounded good, but Akinmusire took his game further, pushing with poise through Wayne Shorter’s “Fee Fi Fo Fum” and then making the unusual decision to play “Stablemates” as a trumpet-piano duet. (The house pianist, so to speak, was Geoffrey Keezer.) He was moving out on the proverbial limb, and backing up every risk with results. It’s fair to say that I was floored.
That moment always returns fresh when I get to contemplating Akinmusire, as I do in this weekend’s piece. It’s not just about the trumpet playing, inventive and surefooted as it may be. It’s about the urge to connect with his band mates -- even when they’re not really his band mates but rather an all-star combo (Keezer, bassist Reginald Veal, drummer Carl Allen) working toward a functional end.
Obviously I think you hear that commitment clearly on When the Heart Emerges Glistening, Akinmusire’s new Blue Note debut. What I wanted to stress in the piece was the idea that he could lean heavily on a collective ideal without easing up on his prodigious gifts. The magnanimity doesn’t trump the prowess, or vice-versa.
Robert Stolarik for The New York Times
And I think that’s one thing that sets Akinmusire apart from some other comparably equipped trumpeters in his demo. Christian Scott, who’s about the same age and says similar things about the absence of hierarchy in his band, just can’t help being the center of attention with his horn. (His writing also skews more toward blatant crossoverisms.) Shane Endsley, who has a worthy new album out with his Music Band, upholds the egoless principle almost to the point of self-effacement. Peter Evans, whose new quintet album I just Playlisted, can’t seem to avoid brandishing his alien technique. Jonathan Finlayson, Akinmusire’s old sparring partner, has drawn more attention within Steve Coleman’s band than in his own. (For the record, though, here he is leading Sicilian Defense, his group with Endsley.) As for Avishai Cohen, I think he has been moving in the right direction with Triveni, and one of my standout jazz moments of 2010 was an ad hoc duet between him and Ambrose during an SFJAZZ Collective hit. (If you really must know what I mean, read to the end of this review.)
But back to the album at hand. Look again at that title, which Akinmusire seems to invest with a lot of sincerity. For that matter, look (again?) at the cover image.
Openheartedness is something Akinmusire values highly, and it’s something he elicits from his band mates. Smith in particular, with whom he has a striking front-line rapport -- approaching Wynton-and-Branford striking, which I mean as high praise -- brings enormous emotional release to his playing on this album. (You need look no further than the opening track, “Confessions to My Unborn Daughter,” especially from around 3:40 to 4:30. That “whoa!” is Ambrose, obvs.)
And while we’re on that opening track, Akimusire solos next, and his choice of notes is fairly out-there for a young turk making his major-label debut, no? One of the interviews I couldn’t work into the piece was with trumpeter Laurie Frink, who taught Akinmusire for three years. She made the point (echoed in my conversation with Terence Blanchard) that Akinmusire doesn’t favor the usual “trumpet-istic” intervals and phrases; his ear is just somewhere else.
“When he first came to me he had very clear vision musically of what he wanted to he playing, and what he wanted to sound like, and where he wanted his journey as an artist to go,” Frink said. “But his instrumental ability was not on as high a level as his artistry. That was his frustration. So we concentrated on increasing his level of instrumental ability to reach the same level as his artistic vision.”
Which brings me back to the Monk Institute, effectively Akinmusire’s finishing school. (Y’all get that reference, right?) This video nicely frames the following quote, if you feel like reading ahead.
“The biggest thing I got from Terence was, he made me feel like I was enough,” Akinmusire told me. “I always had my own concept and belief of how music should be and how I should play. But being there-- let’s just say, before I went to the Monk Institute and developed a relationship with him, I would play my stuff, and then I would play something right after to show people that I know what’s going on, I know the history. To validate myself. But being around him, he would be like, ‘Man, fuck everybody, man. This is your time. You’re you. You’re enough.’ I would be in class and if I quoted something, he would stop the rhythm section. He’d be like ‘Naw, brah. We don’t do that in here.’ I owe him a lot. He made me very comfortable. I’m a shy person, and I think I used to be a lot shyer musically.”
Quick related postscript: I’ve spilled some ink over Blanchard’s role with the Monk Institute, and it surprised me to learn that he had stepped down as the program’s artistic director, to assume a similar post at the University of Miami. So far I haven’t heard who will be tapped to replace him in Monkville. (Stab in the dark: Kevin Eubanks? He’s already a friend to the Institute, and his schedule eased up recently...)
- Ben Ratliff and I talk Ambrose on the NY Times Popcast
- Ambrose Akinmusire featured on JazzSet with Dee Dee Bridgewater
- A live version of “Confessions,” from 2009 or so: