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Ambrose Akinmusire: Emerging Heart


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The feeling you get from gospel music, and the feeling the old jazz musicians that originated the music got from playing their instruments, is something that I didn't separate. It was always gospel music to me--just them playing it on an instrument.
"My favorite instrument is the cello," said the easygoing young musician in early February, from his apartment in Manhattan, where he referred to himself jokingly as "a hibernating jazzman." His West-Coast roots weren't taking a firm grip in the frigid temperatures of the Northeast. "Me and strings just don't get along. I can play piano; I can play a lot of different things, drums. But strings, I just don't get."

Those words came from Ambrose Akinmusire, a trumpet player of considerable merit and one of the fresh voices on today's jazz scene. That might seem a bit off-kilter for a guy who, at age 28, is rightly considered one of the rising stars on his instrument. But some things about Akinmusire are just different like that. Coming out of California's Berkley High School as an acclaimed trumpeter, he had scholarship offers from the Manhattan School of Music, Berklee College of Music and the New School. "But I wanted to be a mathematician. I wanted to go to Stanford and study math and do something along those lines," he says matter-of-factly.

He chose Manhattan School of Music, but unlike the preponderance of students there, Akinmusire considered himself a rebel of sorts. His methods of getting in touch with the jazz tradition and relating it to his own creativity were often at odds with his teachers. In 2007, he won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Trumpet Competition, but, says Akinmusire, "I chose trumpet just because it had three buttons [valves]. There's no special story behind it. I just coincidentally play trumpet. I see myself more as a musician or an artist. I just so happen to play trumpet. I do love it. It's not my favorite instrument."

These things may suggest Akinmusire is one of those artists, as in: "Oh,those eccentric artists." Not so. He's a very serious musician who admits one of his missions is to change jazz by helping bring about a freedom of expression he feels may be getting lost. He's honest, a deep thinker and a highly evolved soul. He's also extremely affable, laughs easily, and is as down-to-earth as one would want. He doesn't take himself too seriously, in spite of the seriousness of his art and his ability to throw himself fully into the weightiness of his pursuits. It's just that Akinmusire thinks outside the box—to the point where he probably dislikes that now-trite expression "outside the box."

And he has succinct, even if not standard, ideas on things like his approach to music and his trumpet style. Talk to Akinmusire for a length of time, and one can't help but assess that he trusts what he knows and feels, and is comfortably aware that there's always much more to learn—more ways to grow. About his playing, he says, "Sometimes I want to sound ignorant. Sometimes I want to sound really articulate. There's nothing wrong with that. Each one makes the other stand out more." He quips at one point, "I practice a lot just to eliminate the feeling of metal in my hands—so I can at least pretend I'm playing the cello."

Akinmusire has made a name for himself in a short period of time. His new recording, When the Heart Emerges Glistening (Blue Note, 2011), released in April, is sure to do nothing but boost his standing. It is one of the best records of 2011 thus far, and one that will last. Accomplished with guys he's played with for a while, and produced by pianist Jason Moran, the recording is an inspired musical statement. Almost like a suite, it covers different moods. There are different kinds of conversations. The playing is killin.'

"I want to change jazz," says the trumpeter, directly and without arrogance or pretense. He knows what he means and knows what he wants. "If I can't do that, I want to at least inspire somebody to change it or to move it forward. I feel like it's been in the same position for years now, whereas in the beginning [of jazz], every 10 years there would be a new movement. I think in classical music it's still happening. In hip-hop it's happening. In every other genre it's happening; for some reason in jazz, it's not. There are reasons for that. I think that's related to the musical institutions.

"The generation that's coming up under us is actually starting to question what they're being taught. And I think that's the first step in changing anything, especially changing jazz," says Akinmusire. "I think it's definitely changing. One of my dreams is, I hope when I'm 80 I can go to a jam session and sit down and have everybody sound like themselves. To be on the edge of my seat anticipating what the next person is going to sound like, as opposed to every pianist sounding like Herbie and Brad Mehldau, every drummer sounding like Tain (Jeff Tain Watts), every alto player sounding like Kenny Garrett, every tenor player sounding like Mark Turner and Coltrane. I don't want to hear that. ... Or at least be able to say, 'I remember when it was just starting to change. I remember having some effect on that.' That's my dream."

Akinmusire isn't blowing smoke. "I know exactly what I want to change it to: Everybody to feel comfortable expressing themselves. That's it. That's the only thing that needs to happen for the music to change. I just want everybody to be themselves—I don't want them to be anybody else—figure themselves out and express that musically. That's it." Mid-thought, he chuckles at the notion, aware it's easier said than done, aware that it's a precarious goal.

When the Heart Emerges Glistening is clearly part of the process on that journey for individuality and discovery. The title, he said, "is talking about being present and invested and honest, not just in music but in everything you do—bringing that to the forefront and being comfortable in that. ... Everybody wants to be perfect: 'I know everything. I'm beautiful.' No. Nobody's perfect. We all have bad sides to us. Every day you should be trying to be a better person, and if you're not being honest with yourself, you can't really become a better person. The 'glistening' part is related to that. You glisten, because it's fresh—like a heart. If you were to take your heart out, it would be glistening because you had just taken it out. That's more related to living in the moment. ... It's about inhabiting every part of yourself, wholly—bringing that to the forefront, as opposed to pretending you're something you're not, or neglecting other parts of yourself."

The band on the remarkable CD includes Akinmusire's musical soul mate, saxophonist Walter Smith III, as well as pianist Gerald Clayton, Justin Brown on drums and Harish Raghavan on bass. "I'm lucky to have a band, a real band. We've known each other for so long. We were playing with each other before Blue Note, and would be playing with each other even if there was no Blue Note. I'm lucky to be in this position, to be around musicians who really believe in developing." The selection of Moran, himself a highly creative musician, is also significant.

Says Akinmusire, "Jason's been an inspiration to me since I've been in high school. I've had the opportunity to play with him a few times. He's someone I turn to when I need advice career-wise and musically. Him being there, just his energy and his presence, helped a lot of people to be comfortable with the music in the studio—which is an environment that I find it hard to really play in. I know a lot of my peers feel the same way. Jason is someone who is always is hitting at 100 percent in the studio, no matter where he is. Just having him around helped bring that vibe onto the album."

Akinmusire was contacted in 2009 by Blue Note's Bruce Lundvall and had about a year to develop the project before recording in the fall of 2010. He wrote a lot of music in that time, but settled on a precise idea of what to bring to the studio. "Everything that's on the CD is what we recorded. There are no tunes that didn't make the album," he says. "The first two days we recorded with everybody isolated. On the last day we just went in there and played, everybody in the same room. Some of the takes, like 'The Walls of Lechuguilla,' and the duo stuff with Gerald and I, 'What's New' and 'Regret,' those are in the same room, no edits."

"Confessions to My Unborn Daughter" is an interesting, melodic, way to jump into the CD, with Akinmusire and Smith weaving lines adroitly over the rhythm. Smith takes one of many attractive, serpentine solos, building tension as he goes. Akinmusire's trumpet opens by careening off the edges of his composition, then moving toward its center before skittering off. The composition becomes majestic. The musical dialogue among the group is compelling, and it holds that way throughout the whole recording, whether it's the entire band or just trumpet and piano. Tunes flow into one another. Moods shift. Ethereal sections give way to edgier examinations. Clayton gets to exhibit his luscious touch and fertile ideas. The rhythm of Brown and Raghavan is supportive and flexible. Akinmusire is fiery and never predictable. Forceful, probing, soaring. At times gentle as a kitten. Piano-trumpet duets are gorgeous and entrancing.

Particularly gripping is how Smith and Akinmusire meld. The rapport goes way back. They've played together for years, from the Manhattan School of Music and then on to the Monk Institute. Akinmusire is part of Smith's new CD, III (Criss Cross Jazz, 2011). "Everybody says 'right-hand man,' but I would go even further to say he's a part of me, and I think I'm a part of him," says Akinmusire. "It's unbelievable when we're playing music. We don't even have musical conversations. We don't discuss anything about concepts or anything like that. We just hang out with each other. When we play, there's always magic happening. I always look forward to sharing the bandstand with him."

One of the goals the trumpeter had in mind was: "I wanted it to be raw—as is. So there's some missed notes and a lot of rawness." He explains, "I feel like I missed that from back in the day. Living in the moment is what has been lost in jazz and even in pop. I miss that, so I wanted to capture that on this album." From writing songs to organizing in the studio, Akinmusire keeps his eyes ahead, but not on one fixed bull's- eye. There is a focus, but an openness. "I don't feel like I have a composing style, but I do have a concept. It's not really formed yet, but my intentions are to capture a mood and then allow it to live. By that, I mean I want every time we approach it to be different. If we play it in January and don't touch it until December, I want it to have grown in those 11 months."

He explains, "I bring in parts to the people in the band. I try not to tell them exactly what to do. I find when people do that, the musicians feel limited and stick to that. They don't allow it to grow. I'll say, 'This is the chart. It's kind of like this.' Then I'll immediately say something to contradict what I just said. 'It's kind of a swing-type thing, but straight also.' Just to give them a sense of where I'm coming from. ... I believe that composition—music in general—shouldn't be exact. It shouldn't be straight up and down. It should be a circle. That's the way nature is. When you look at a tree, it doesn't go, 'click click click.' It sways around. I try to capture that in my music. I also try to have silence in every piece that I write—a space for me and the listener to inhabit. ... I always try to write in rests, or just a moment, where there's no melody, nothing happening—just an exhale.

"I try to play like I'm having a conversation. Nobody wants to listen to someone who doesn't listen," he says with a chuckle. "I'm not a great orator. I have to be communicating with somebody. It has to be back and forth. When I'm playing, I'm listening to every part of the drum set, the octaves that the bassist is playing—how staccato his notes are, the voicings the pianist is playing. I can't really do that if I'm just there playing a bunch of eighth notes on every solo. Inherently, there are spaces in my playing. ... Also, I try to be mindful that everything I do has a negative. I can sound like the most articulate trumpet player, like a classical trumpet player. But at the other side, I want to be able to sound like a beginning trumpet player. I want to be able to sound like I can't play. I'm thinking of that spectrum. That's just the way I live life. Everything you do has an opposite, and I don't prefer one over the other."

It's hard for Akinmusire to talk about his influences on trumpet. He's done his homework—tons of it. He knows the noble lineage of his instrument and draws inspiration from many spots along that path.

"I'm not going to say I have every record, but it's pretty hard to have a record over me," he says. "I have five or six hard drives full of jazz records. I've checked out a lot of trumpet players, from Louis Armstrong to Henry 'Red' Allen to Bix Beiderbecke. People that I constantly turn back to are people like Fats Navarro, Booker Little, Clifford Brown, Woody Shaw. Living people? Marcus Belgrave. It's kind of endless. Roy Hargrove was a big influence on me. I knew him in high school, and he always helped me out when he came to town. The same thing with Nicholas Payton and Wynton Marsalis. Terence Blanchard. ... I've always tried to go out of my way to check out lesser-known people. That's interesting to me, because they're playing not for fame or money because nobody knows them—they're playing strictly for the art. Someone like Marcus Belgrave or Joe Wilder. These kind of people are really interesting to me. Charles Tolliver, Don Cherry, Charlie Shavers."

Being the explorer that he is, Akinmusire has checked out all kinds of music and takes it all in with open ears. Rock and funk of the day, but also pop and people like Chopin. "I'm the person who's always asking people what they're checking out and writing it down, then going to check it out. Even if I don't like it, trying to figure out why I don't like it. It's never-ending.

"Jazz kind of found me," he says. "I grew up in the black church, a Baptist church. My mom says they used to take me to church when I was two or three, and I would always run up to the piano in the middle of the church service. They put me in piano lessons, and I started playing at church at the age of four or five or something like that. The feeling that you get from gospel music, and the feeling that the old jazz musicians that originated the music got from playing their instruments, is something that I didn't separate. It was always gospel music to me—just them playing it on an instrument."

In sixth grade he started playing trumpet and band music. At a summer jazz camp, he and longtime friend Jonathan Finlayson had a mentor with a big jazz record collection. "He was friends with Miles and Eddie Henderson. Every weekend, we would drive around to the flea market looking for records. He would give us history and stuff. He never really went over trumpet technique; he was just bathing us in the culture of jazz. By the time I got to ninth grade, I was such a jazz musician in the culture of who I was. I never had the chance to think about it being corny or something that my peers didn't like, because I went to a high school (Berkeley High School in Oakland) where being one of the best jazz musicians was like being a star football player. It was always cool.

"Art still flourishes there, and the kids are exposed to a lot of things at a young age," he says of his high school. "All of our jazz concerts would sell out. It was hip being a jazz musician. I never had to question it. I think that's how I learned to love it. I never had a reason not to love it. If people of my generation didn't have a reason not to like it, then they would like it. But a lot of people of my generation associate it with old people: corny, Kenny G or whatever, especially black people—stuff they can't associate with."

A string of mentors helped him in his teen years, but in a way different from that of many young musicians. "I never had anyone say, 'The is the way you play the trumpet.' When Wynton and these guys would come to town, they would say, 'Get this book.' I would be on my own. I would get those books and play out of the books. That's it. I never had anybody to tell me what was right or wrong. I'm grateful for that. I had to figure out a lot of stuff on my own." Akinmusire would seek out trumpet players like Marsalis, Payton and Hargrove when they came to Oakland to perform.

"I did have a jazz band, and it was great. But it wasn't like an art school. We didn't have theory class. We would just come in there and put the music in front of us and play the music. It's sort of a genius approach. I taught myself how to read music and I taught myself how to play the trumpet and I taught myself harmony. It was great."

A fortuitous event in high school was a workshop visit by the superb saxophonist Steve Coleman. Akinmusire and Finlayson sat in with him at one point during the visit. Akinmusire recounts, speckled with amusement, "After the workshop he said, 'We're going to start a band.' I've always been a big record collector. I had all the M-Base stuff. I had the stuff with him and Dave Holland. I was, like, 'You're just bullshitting.' The next summer he called us for a tour. I went on tour with him when I was 19, for six weeks. I didn't know what the hell was going on. It was so embarrassing. If there was any rite of passage to becoming a man, musically, that's what that was for me. After those six weeks I was a whole different musician, definitely. He had planted a seed. I still sounded like shit. I definitely knew what I had to work on. I came back, and that's when I really, really got in the 'shed. I was always a practicer, but after that I really was in the 'shed."

Soon he was off to the Manhattan School of Music, where he had teachers like Cecil Bridgewater, Lew Soloff, Dick Oatts and Laurie Frink. Akinmusire describes Frink as "the lady who kind of changed my life in terms of the trumpet: the trumpet guru." He notes, "I studied with her for three years. She helped my trumpet playing in ways I can't even describe. I wouldn't say I was a horrible trumpet player before, but she definitely made me understand that playing trumpet is a whole different beast."

His classmates included Smith, Aaron Parks, Miguel Zenon, John Benitez and Will Vinson. Being around high-caliber musicians "was great—not even thinking about career or money. That was the first time I was around musicians from others places. You get so caught up in your bubble—you say, 'Oh yeah. This is great.' You know how you fit in the world—this world that you're living in. But to go outside the bubble and be in New York and to see other people who are as passionate and serious as you are was a great big inspiring experience for me," he says. He was gigging and did a record with Vijay Iyer, (In What Language, Pi, 2003) and worked with Lonnie Plaxico and Stefon Harris.

With a humble chuckle, he adds, "Man, I sounded horrible. I think all those guys saw potential in me, potential I didn't see during that time. A lot of those guys would pull me aside and have these talks with me, encouraging me—Stefon and Jeremy Pelt and all these guys that were hiring me. It really helped me along the way."

Akinmusire returned to the West Coast to pursue a master's degree at the University of Southern California, then decided to audition for the renowned Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Los Angeles. "It was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life—to walk into the room and see, within five feet of you, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Terence Blanchard sitting in front of you with a clipboard," he says with a combination of awe and glee. "We had to play a Wayne tune for the audition, and he's sitting there in front of us—very nerve-wracking." But he was accepted, and worked simultaneously on his master's degree and in the Monk program, where Blanchard was artistic director. The schedule was brutal, with many of his days from 10 in the morning until 8:30 at night, followed by practicing his horn.

"For those two years, I really worked my ass off. Terence Blanchard really, really helped. He was the next stage in my development. Before I met him, I always had these concepts and had already figured out what I wanted to sound like, which was something that Steve Coleman stressed. But then being in a musical institution, they put so much pressure on you to sound like everybody else that you start questioning yourself. While I was at Manhattan School of Music, I was sort of the dark horse, the black swan. The teachers either loved me or hated me. Most of them hated me. They felt like I was a rebel, always questioning their authority—which I was, in a sense.

"It affected me a lot. Let's say when I was taking a solo, I would play 75 percent of the stuff that I heard in my head and then I would put 25 percent of tradition in there just to prove to people that I could do that. Then when I got to the Monk Institute and met Terence, he was, like, 'Look, man. You have something. Don't be afraid to express it. Fuck everybody else. This is you.' It's about you expressing what you want to express. That's the true meaning of art."

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.

"I like the potential jazz has to bring people together," says Akinmusire. "I feel like maybe it's been lost. But I like the potential of it being found again. I like being able to go to France and play music with the French people and not be able to speak a word with them. That's a beautiful thing to me. I like having to fix it. In order to make music work, sometimes you have to pick someone's brain. In picking someone's brain, you get to learn a lot about how they think about themselves and how they think about the world. And that brings you closer to them. I think maybe that's the thing I love most about jazz: its potential to bring people together.

"I'm extremely optimistic about the future, of music and specifically jazz. This whole 'Jazz is dead' is going to be eliminated. People won't be saying it. They shouldn't be saying it now, but they definitely won't be saying it soon."

Selected Discography
Ambrose Akinmusire, When the Heart Emerges Glistening (Blue Note, 2011)
Walter Smith III, III (Criss Cross, 2011)
Ambrose Akinmusire, Prelude: To Cora (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2008)
LeBoeuf Brothers, House Without a Door (LeBoeuf Brothers Music, 2009)
John Escreet, Consequences (Posi-Tone, 2008)
Josh Roseman, New Constellations: Live in Vienna (Accurate Records, 2008)
Alan Pasqua, The Antisocial Club (Crytogramophone, 2007)
Vijay Iyer/Mike Ladd, In What Language (Pi, 2003)
Aaron Parks, Shadows (Keynote, 2003)

Steve Coleman, Resistance Is Futile (Label Bleu, 2002)
Photo Credits

Page 1: Mark Ladenson

Page 3: Yann Renoult

Page 4: Emra Islek

Page 6: Dave Kaufman
All Other Photos: Courtesy of Ambrose Akinmusire




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