Belgrade Jazz Festival: Belgrade, Serbia, October 25-28, 2012
There is a huge buzz around Ambrose Akinmusire right now, and in Belgrade, in a standing room-only Velika Sala, he showed why. He has a chance to become the next great jazz trumpet player because his lethal chops serve a deep, original concept. His jolting, blindingly bright lines, firing in multiple trajectories, might eventually come to sound familiar as listeners are exposed to his arsenal of devices. But right now they are trumpet forms that have not been heard before. And for all the excitement generated by each complex constellation of trumpet ideas, the real challenge of his art is perceiving how these segments relate to one another, in new progressions of musical logic. Akinmusire's narrative is never simplified with explicit transitions.
For all the freshness of his sonic world, Akinmusire's music is firmly grounded in history. Anyone who doubts his knowledge of his predecessors should check out his "Before & After" column in the October, 2012 issue of JazzTimes. He can apparently identify any significant jazz trumpet player from Henry "Red" Allen to Enrico Rava in four bars. He is a true nerd of jazz trumpet history. But he uses this foundation to create something of his own.
He is making news not only as an instrumentalist but as a bandleader. Each member of his quintet (Walter Smith III, tenor saxophone; Sam Harris, piano; Harish Raghavan, bass; Justin Brown, drums) is essential to the drama of an Akinmusire performance. In Belgrade, they began the way most Akinmusire concerts begin, with a long, explosive, immaculate trumpet cadenza: a summons, a self-proclamation, a call-to-arms. But then this evening turned unexpectedly inward. They played a lot of new material, including several ballads. The second piece, "Vartha," began so softly it was a fervent murmuring. Harris, a pianist capable of eruptive, crashing power, was surprisingly quiet for most of this night. On "Vartha" he played a rapt duet with Akinmusire, a simple rising and falling together, repeated over and over until it became a hypnotic whispered ritual. The fourth piece was another seance, without solos, Harris barely touching chords.
The player who changed the least in this performance was Brown. He sustained a flow of furious percussive information similar to his work in other, more burning Akinmusire concerts. He surrounded the night's lyricism with tension and energy.
Something hip happened at the end. After the first encore, a few people left, and when the doors to Velika Sala opened, it was possible to hear an intermission band, playing upstairs in the foyer. They were playing "Walkin,'" the Miles Davis version. So for their second encore, Akinmusire's band took up "Walkin,'" and smoked it.
The last night in Velika Sala, featuring the Jovan Maljoković Balkan Salsa Band, was not particularly interesting until guest singer Ana Sofrenović took the stage. She is best known as an actress and worked for several years in London's West End. She sang four numbers, and each was extraordinary. It is hard to create new interpretations of "Autumn Leaves" and "Summertime," but Sofrenović freely twisted and smeared them with her elastic vocal instrument. She turned "Autumn Leaves" into something passionate and personal, and "Summertime" into an emotional catharsis. But the best was "Calling You (theme from Baghdad Café)." She dramatized it like a method actress. It was the best version of this great, rarely heard song since Madeline Eastman's.