Ambrose Akinmusire Dazzle Denver June 21, 2014 Einstein taught us that time is a relative thing. Time can pass, or seem to pass, at different rates depending on how fast you are moving; especially in relation to an observer who is moving at a different speed. For Ambrose Akinmusire and his quintet, time is a relative thing too. And it may well be different for the observers than it is for the band.
Akinmusire brought his quintet to Dazzle for a two night stand of his own brand of jazz. This is a band that is mostly innocent of the charge of swinging. While many of the tunes Saturday night seemed to have a steady beat, spotting a time signature often proved elusive. Other times, when the band momentarily established a rhythmic structure, it would quickly and subtly morph into another time. On one song, a 3/4 beat imperceptively shifted to 4/4 and soon after became a 2/4 beat.
So don't go to an Akinmusire concert planning to dance. Plan to listen. And think. This is cerebral stuff. Most of the band has been together for some time and Saturday night they were able to navigate the twists and turns of the complicated music and never run aground. The music fell within the broad category of "jazz," so soloing by all band members constituted a big part of the evening. Like the time signatures, the ensemble playing ebbed and flowed and did not always follow a more traditional head-solos-head pattern. One of the slower tunes was built around a simple ascending four note line that was passed around the band like a newly legalized Colorado joint. Sometimes one player jumped on it and twisted it around, other times two or three members would work it simultaneously. Another time, Akinmusire and sax man Walter Smith, III took it together and Akinmusire played the standard ascending line while Smith took a descending line creating a new harmony with each stop along the way.
Akinmusire's solos varied widely. Generally, he had a mellow, breathy tone. He typically stayed in the mid to lower ranges of his trumpet only occasionally going aloft into the Stratosphere (or Faddisphere or Fergusonsphere). His solos ranged from introspective to urgent and intensely pleading. Smith, too, offered a number of intense solos, some of which featured body English that looked like he was chopping wood.
The rhythm section was steady, brooding and often ominous. Harish Raghavan on bass chugged relentlessly through the time changes, the free time and everything else the band dished out. Justin Brown on drums was obviously no mere time-keeper because, well, time was often either irrelevant or not a high priority. Nevertheless, he was constantly all over his drum kit working new patterns and sounds and adding punctuation where needed.
Sam Harris on piano is the newest member of the quintet. He spent most of his time on the grand piano, but took a couple turns on the Rhodes electric pianothe only non-acoustic instrument on the band stand. He took a couple solos; real solos where no one else played. That allowed him complete flexibility with time, accelerating and decelerating at will. For the encore, only Harris accompanied Akinmusire on what was probably the most conventional tune of the evening. Although not specifically recognizable, it sounded like it could have easily been something from the Cole Porter songbook.
Akinmusire named his latest album The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint (Blue Note, 2014), indicating again, his cerebral approach to his craft. He has collected a number of awards over the last few years including winning the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition and he was named 2012 Trumpet Player of the Year by DownBeat Magazine's Critics' poll among a number of other honors. He is viewed by many as an up and coming jazz star. How far can he go? Time will tell.