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.