Ambrose Akinmusire: Emerging Heart

R.J. DeLuke By

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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."
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