Let’s get this out of the way first: I don't think T.S.
Monk could have won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Drums Competition,
which I covered here. But I think he’d be the first to make that
disclaimer. (Well, one of the first.)
Monk fils, who served
as an emergency feed of personal history and family lore during the
logistically complex semifinals on Saturday — you’ll be grateful to learn
that his father gulped Pepsi, smoked Camels and pinched pennies — gave the first
performance at the finals on Sunday. His unaccompanied solo, played on an
electronic drum kit, was OK, and, under the circumstances, the essence of
chutzpah. But then this is a guy who had no qualms about starting an
invocation, on both days, with “Let’s get ready to Drumble!”
The drumble, as it were, came late in the game, well after
the competition had been settled. As I observed in the paper, it involved a
round robin of every member of the judges’ panel, along with Tipper Gore
— and most importantly, Jamison Ross, whose strong, untroubled swing feel
helped put him in the winner’s circle.
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.