Ambrose Akinmusire: Emerging Heart
He says some teachers in New York didn't exactly discourage his approach, "but they definitely were not encouraging." They would tell him, "'Ambrose, you don't know harmony. You need to check out the tradition,'" he recalls with humor, not derision. "And I'm thinking, 'Man, I have more records than you, and I know more about the tradition than you.' In music institutions they only stress one side of tradition: respect the elders. They don't stress the other side of it, where you respect the elders, what came before you, but you have to reach forward. That's what the masters did. That's the one thing that musical institutions are doing that hurts the music. They don't stress the other part of it. I'm all for transcribing solos and checking out this and checking out that, but I'm also all for pushing the music forward."
He persevered. "Needing to get that degree, I couldn't just say, 'Fuck you guys. I'll do it my way.' So it was perfect timing to meet someone like Terence and to have an opportunity to play every day and work out my ideas and concepts."
In 2007, he won the Monk trumpet competition and also the Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition. His debut album, Prelude: To Cora (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2008), also came out, and he was back in New York. "Originally I was going to stay in LA. I had had some gigs. I was doing some pop stuff. I was playing with Macy Gray and the Brand New Heavies. I was making a little bit of money. I didn't think I'd come back to New York and have gigs. My girlfriend (attending New York University) convinced me to come back to New York," he notes.
Akinmusire was getting gigs where he could, including working on Moran's Monk tribute project, "In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall," part of a celebration of the 50th anniversary of that landmark Monk event in 1957. Work came his way steadily, but, again exemplifying his different take on things, he notes, "I don't get so many calls from musicians as a sideman. I think maybe I don't do well as a sideman because you can tell me what to do, but ultimately I'm going to play what I think the music needs. A lot of people don't like that. When you hire me, you have to know, 'He's going to be Ambrose, 100 percent.' I think that's why I don't do good as a sideman in a lot of instances. But I think a lot of people respect me. I'm friends with a lot of musicians."
He says things are going well, and then, looking through a humorous lens, he notes, "On one hand, I care and I think about that. On the other hand, I don't. I'm going to be Ambrose and I'm going to practice. If you talk to me 30 years from now, I'm going to be the same dude. We're going to have the exact same conversation. I'm still going to believe in art. I'm still going to be practicing for the majority of the day. I'm still going to be expressing the need for people to express what they believe, 100 percent. I'm not going to change."
Though he likes being with the prestigious Blue Note label, he adds, "But it hasn't changed me and it won't change me. I've seen the effects of that from people of my generation who've come before me. I try not to care about it and I try not to think about it too much, because it can be overwhelming. I've already fallen into that. The first couple of months, I was really stressed out and I couldn't play. I could play, but it wasn't as easy as it usually is, or fun. So I just said, 'Man, I can't let this shit change me.' That's where I am with it right now. It's going good." Then he adds, flatly, "But if it was going bad I'd be OK with it." That's Ambrose.
With his new recording just springing forward, Akinmusire is in other directions, writing for a big band project that will premier at Carnegie Hall on December 3, presented by George Wein. He's also talking about developing a duo project with a pianist. He wants to work with a vocalist and has some in mind. And he wants to do more work with a string quartet. He did one performance at the Rubin Museum in New York, through a Chamber Music America grant.
"I have a lot of goals. Some are more etched in stone than others, but they'll happen," he says. Included among them may be a move back to California. But, rest assured, working on music, exploring its elements as well as its boundaries, are always on the docket for this interesting and unpredictable soul.