Ambrose Akinmusire: Painting Saviors

DanMichael Reyes BY

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Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire (pronounced ah-kin-MOO-sir-ee) is as imaginative as the sonic soundscapes he creates and as informative as the titles that he bestows on his songs. Ambrose Akinmusire's allure stems from the complexity of his albums; a complexity that requires the listener to fully participate and engage with the artist and ask questions as to who the characters are, what events are taking place, and the emotions that the composer is trying to convey. This type of intricacy is the one that jazz was once associated with, not the one that has left audiences complaining that the music is too hard to understand . While super human displays instruments are part of the audience's dalliance with jazz, the musical idiom that grew up in Storyville is far richer when a plot is driving it.

As a testament to his virtuosity on the horn, the trumpeter won the Thelonious Monk Competition and the Carmine Caruso Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition in 2007. Later that year, Akinmusire released his debut album as leader on Fresh Sounds, Prelude... To Cora. In 2011, the Oakland native shared his critically acclaimed sophomore album under Blue Note, When The Heart Emerges Glistening.

Recently, the 31-year old trumpeter released his second Blue Note album, The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier To Paint (2014). Akinmusire is joined by familiar faces like Walter Smith III on sax, pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Justin Brown. Charles Altura also lends his guitar on the record along with vocalists, Theo Bleckmann, Becca Stevens, and singer-songwriter Cold Specks. The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier To Paint also includes collaborations with the OSSO String Quartet and flutist Elena Penderhuges.

The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier To Paint (2014) isn't just about how killing the music sounds. While the playing on The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier To Paint is definitely dazzling, Ambrose Akinmusire's third album is a collection of stories, characters, and emotions written to give the listener more than an album of just technical flaunts.

All About Jazz: Congratulations on the new record. I had the chance to listen to it last week and it sounds amazing.

Ambrose Akinmusire: Thanks!

AAJ: You made a comment about how jazz was getting stagnant three years ago when you last spoke to us. A lot has happened since 2011, do you still feel the same way?

AA: I don't think that I ever really felt—even back then— that jazz was at a stand still. I think the people that were influencing things aren't the most forward thinking musicians. My beliefs about music are very different from that point of view. I think that creative music will always be here and it will always go forth. I don't know whether or not people will hop on to that and go along with it, but I think that even if this generation doesn't, then generations further down the line will. I think that music is always progressing [regardless] of people playing it or not.

AAJ: Speaking of forward thinking musicians, what would be your advice to young musicians who have a lot of history to learn from but also want to push the boundaries of this music?

AA: There's so many ways to approach it. The people I consider as forward thinking musicians are also backward thinking. You do have to check out the tradition, but this notion of checking out all of the history in order to pursue your own voice [is] false. There's so much history and we don't live forever; you're never going to get to the point where you say, "I've learned it all." The ideal thing would be to check out stuff from the past, where you are in the moment, and check out where you want to be in the future. So there are three components that are there and that have to be mixed equally.

I think that there is also so much focus on bebop in a lot of institutions, but the bebop movement wasn't very long. If you want to talk about learning tradition, then you have to go back to New Orleans and before that, like West African music. That's why I really respect someone like Steve Coleman or Wynton Marsalis. I really respect them for diving deep into the music and that's what people have to do. You have to be equally avant-garde as you are traditional.

I feel like a lot of students nowadays don't know records. Could you imagine being a philosopher and having studied and not having read certain books? It's impossible. You can't just come up with your theory based on what you think. I guess you can, but it's not going to be as concrete and it's not going to reach as many people as it could reach if you've studied a little bit more.

I do think it's important to study tradition, but I do think that you have to know that you're going to be studying it for your whole life; that's the beauty of it.

AAJ: You're an avid record collector. Does going out to a record store and purchasing a physical copy make a difference versus streaming it or buying it on the Internet? Do you think that the way we consume music has an impact on the way music is produced?

AA: It definitely does! It has a lot to do with it! I'm only 31, but I do remember when CDs came into effect. The way I was brought into this music was through local musicians taking my friend and me to the local flea market so we could go through the record bins. There's so much that you can get. You pick up the record and you read the back and you see the personnel. You read about these things that you don't get when you're dealing with something digital.

And because everything is so easily obtained, the searching part of it doesn't really exist. I remember searching for a record for six months! There's no excitement when you download it. There's nothing like [searching] for a record for six months, finding it, then sit down with a coffee. I think a lot of this generation doesn't really get to experience that excitement and that part of music doesn't really exist nowadays. But the other side of it that there is no excuse not to know a bunch of records if all you have to do is Google it.

AAJ: You've spoken about making a record that requires the listener to listen to the album from front to back in order to understand it. Do you think that you achieved it with this record?

AA: The honest answer is that I don't know if I'll ever achieve that. I don't think that I'm very far away from doing that and I guess I'm getting closer to that but I don't really know.

AAJ: Is this a continuation from When The Heart Emerges? Or are you shooting for something different?

AA: I hope that it will always be a continuation. These albums are really just [about] me stamping the time and where I'm at during that moment. That's really all it is. I'm more concerned about who I am today and trying to inch forward to tomorrow and to fulfill all the roles I have in my life as a friend, artist, son, and a partner. Those are the things that I'm worried about; I'm not really worried about things I did three or four years ago.

If that's the case, then there's going to be traceable elements from the last record. The only thing that I thought about consciously was the "My Name Is Oscar" and "Rollcall For Those Absent." Those two songs have very specific threads, but commonalities for everything else purely coincidental.

AAJ: Can you talk about your decision to have three vocalists on the record?

AA: I hear vocals on my album. My first album has an opera singer and the second one doesn't have it due to budgetary reasons from Blue Note. So if anything, the second one is the weird album. I really hear the voice so much. Not necessarily lyrics, but just the voice as an instrument. I sing the melody during the process of composition, so they fit the voice very naturally.

And these vocalists... I'm just a huge fan of them. Theo Bleckman, Becca, and Cold Specks just bring a whole new element to it as artists. That's what I really love about the musicians I picked from this record and the musicians that I've had the opportunity to play with. They are all such stylist and individualist that eat the music, digest it, and spit it out as a living thing. It was dead before, but it becomes a living organism once it comes out of their mouth.

AAJ: Jason Moran produced your last album, what was it like producing this one?

AA: That first Blue Note album is a little bit different because I produced my first record on Fresh Sound. I don't believe that the music I create can be described in words before it's put out so it's hard to have a producer. It's hard to have someone sitting in front of you expecting you to be able to explain this thing. It's sort of like, "Hey! Describe this baby that your wife is about to have." I can tell you how big I think they're going to be, but I don't know the baby. When you talk to a woman when she's pregnant, they'll tell you that they can feel the baby but describing the baby is a different level. That's why I think I'll continue to produce my own records, because I know what the music wants to be. It's almost like I'm pregnant.

AAJ: One thread that does run throughout the three albums are the elaborate titles you have for your songs.

AA: Most of my tunes are complicated. It's not just blue or green. They're not just happy songs, these are stories. They are stories with characters and emotions so the title just has to be that. It's like a movie; it's hard to give a title for a movie in one word if it's a very complicated movie. What you can do is have a title that sort of brings out other parts of the story, but to describe the story itself that contains characters and emotions with one word? That's hard. It's not coming from me trying to have a certain vibe, that's just what it is. It's hard to describe something in one word when there are so many emotions in it.

AAJ: Could you take us through some of the stories with some of the songs? Maybe a song like "Bubbles (John William Sublett)?"

AA: Sometimes I just geek out. I have an Apple TV and I get on YouTube and say, "What do I want to learn about today?" I was going through minstrel shows and it led me to Buck and Bubbles—not that they were minstrel shows—and I was just so taken. I was like, "Wow! Look at these cats! They can sing and they can dance!" They could really really sing like Nat King Cole style. And the pianist, Buck, he could have a career as a jazz pianist; he was really dealing in that level.

I just thought that these cats were never talked about, maybe among tap dancers and among black intellectual historians and things. So I was just checking out Bubbles and I was like, "Man! This cat is doing moves that James Brown and Michael Jackson." So I did some research and I found out that people like Michael Jackson stole his moves verbatim. I mean Michael Jackson's monkey was named after Bubbles. There are certain clips with him and Duke Ellington; all the jazz musicians back in the day really checked him out. I really believe that a lot of jazz musicians stole a lot of rhythmic things from him

From that point I checked out a lot of clips from YouTube and I found a few rhythms that I liked. So I wrote them down just as rhythms, then I came up with a pitch order that felt like Bubbles, and I kind of inserted that into the rhythm. I just manipulated that throughout the tune so it became more like an exhibition on a theme. There's a theme that's changing so slowly and it sounds like it's the same thing, but it never is. There's a part in the middle of a song where I look back to "Dreams Of The Manbahniese." When I was composing "Bubbles" I looked back and realized I've come so far with my compositional voice. So I was thinking about my first album and I thought about "Dreams of the Manbahniese," and there are parts in "Bubbles" where I insert a section from "Dreams of the Manbahniese."

For the bass solo, Harish recorded a take of an amazing solo because he's Harish and that's just what he does. But afterwards I said to him, "Pretend you're Bubbles and you're doing a tap solo." So that's how that solo came about. At the end of the song, we were just vamping out. I wanted it to vamp for a long time to act like a nod so that if Bubbles were here, it would be like I'm opening up the stage for him to tap. It's sort of like how in the community I grew up in you pour out your beer or alcohol for your friends that have died, this is kind of a moment for Bubbles to come back and tap.

I'm pretty anti-vamp most of the time, but that seemed like one where it had some use or purpose to it.

AAJ: Can you talk about "J.E. Nilmah (Ecclesiastes 6:10)?"

AA: J.E. Nilmah is this person that I knew who always felt like she was in control of things. She was always stressing out and she was super religious. I always found it interesting that she was super religious, but it was almost like she didn't have faith. So the Bible verse is just talking about how things are already pre-planned and ordered. So basically, just go along with it.

AAJ: Who is the inspiration for "As We Fight (willie penrose)?"

AA: No, not at all. Willie Penrose is a fictional character I made up. He's a guy who fought in the Vietnam War and has mental issues because of the war. He's in a cabin with a rifle in a dark room with a television that is black and white—like one of those old televisions. They're sitting in one of these old tattered chairs, rocking back and forth. He's a black man from the south and he's watching the Trayvon Martin case. So that's what that's about and that's why it has this military march thing going. The tempos change because some things rile him up then he calms himself back down. The beginning part is his emotions, and it's just the narrative view of it. When it speeds up, that's like his speech pattern.

AAJ: Trayvon Martin's name comes up over and over again for "Rollcall for Those Absent."

AA: The thing about the Trayvon Martin case... there's just so many angles to it. Just the fact that it happened the way it happened, and the fact that it has been happening so often. As a person with a platform, especially as a young black man with a platform (no matter how small this platform is in the grand scheme of the world), I think it's good to use that platform to say something and to educate people.

I told another interviewer recently about the number of people that have come up to me around the world and asked me about Oscar Grant. I've had the opportunity to talk to them about it or point them in a certain direction just to say, "This is what's going on in my country. This is my experience," not as any type of rebel nor am I trying to change anything. It would be nice to change things, but mainly just to educate people. You look back at John Coltrane and the tunes he wrote; a lot of it really tells you about what was going on and what he was affected by during that time. That's kind of what I want to do. Just as a Black person, you have a certain responsibility to your community.

AAJ: You studied with the late Laurie Frink who recently passed away. Is there anything you'd like to say about her?

AA: Yeah that's really hard. I studied with her for a very long time. I studied with her from 2001 to I don't know when. There were times when I was in New York and I'd go take lessons with her. I'd call her on the phone or write her emails before going off on tour up until recently.

Her passing is really unfortunate. The trumpet world will definitely, and already has, felt the effect of that. I owe her so much. Before I came to her, I didn't really know how to play the trumpet and how the trumpet works. I was just manhandling the horn and going for what I knew, but she really sat me down and was really patient with me. She went inside of me realized how I understood information and gave me a lot of information to keep me on track in terms of the trumpet for the rest of my life.

AAJ: Is there anything you'd like to say in closing?

AA: I'm just really grateful for the attention and support I've gotten over the years. It's inspiring and it's definitely enough to keep me going forward. It's the thing that keeps me getting out of bed and keeps me searching.

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