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The Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet at the Library of Congress

Joseph Boselovic By

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Akinmusire can write a line, a roving melody full of longing and emotion and, on stage, stretch it for all it has.
The Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet
The Library of Congress
Washington, D.C.
May 20, 2017

Although he only has two major label releases to his name, Ambrose Akinmusire has established himself as one of the most exciting trumpet players in recent years. The last appearance he made on a recording was Wolfgang Muthspiel's 2016 album Rising Grace (ECM Records). The fact that the Oakland-born trumpet player appeared on that thoroughly enjoyable album alongside no less than Brad Mehldau, Larry Grenadier, and Brian Blade speaks to his talents. Similarly indicative is the fact that his soon-to-be-released album, A Rift in Decorum (Blue Note Records), will be a live double album—recorded at the Village Vanguard.

In advance of the album's June 9th release date, Akinmusire began a spring U.S. and European tour on Saturday in Washington, D.C., performing at the Coolidge Auditorium as part of the Library of Congress' spring programming. Akinmusire and his quartet provided a lush, expansive 90-minute set that focused predominantly on material that will presumably be featured on the upcoming album. Akinmusire was accompanied by his working quartet, with one exception. Sam Harris provided consistently exciting melodic lines and sparred beautifully with Akinmusire throughout the evening. Although he only had one extensive solo over the course of the set, Harish Raghavan's propulsive, thoughtful bass playing served as a reminder of why he is a widely sought after sideman. Rather than Justin Brown, who has rounded out Akinmusire's working group for some time, Akinmusire was proud to announce and highlight the talents of Jeremy Dutton (who managed to make it to D.C., Akinmusire said with a smile, after graduating from the New School just the day before).

The first song of the night sounded like an already-released track off of A Rift in Decorum, "Maurice & Michael (sorry I didn't say hello)." With a raspy yet elegant tone that has come to characterize much of his sound and playing, Akinmusire led the group in a slow-building effort that went from a more contemplative melodic interplay between Akinmusire and Harris to bouts of energetic improvisation from each of the members of the group. Besides demonstrating his abundant talents as a performer, Akinmusire's touch for composition was also on full display. In the opener and throughout the night, it was possible to sit back and follow different permutations of the group—solos and duo spells between Akinmusire and Harris or Raghavan and Dutton—come and go. Akinmusire can write a line, a roving melody full of longing and emotion and, on stage, stretch it for all it has.

Perhaps the clearest demonstration of Akinmusire's continued growth since the release of his last album, the imagined savior is far easier to paint (Blue Note Records, 2014), was the group's take on "As We Fight (Willie Penrose)," a track from that release. While the performance felt the lack of the texture of Charles Altura's guitar playing from the recording, it was graced by mallet and stick work from Dutton and generous interpretations of the melody that took the more staid, orchestrated studio version into something a bit tougher and with more range.

Another departure from his previous work came later in the evening. The piece featured a more mechanical, repetitive feel to it. With Harris doubling on piano and Fender Rhodes, he matched Raghavan in a slow swelling ocean of sound, with Dutton's playing behind it like clockwork. For parts of it, Akinmusire similarly followed suit, methodically hitting the same note. While a meditative character had defined much of the music earlier in the evening, this playing too had a certain meditative quality. Behind each spit of sound on Akinmusire's trumpet were slight and more intense variations that gave life and vitality to that single note.

For an encore, Akinmusire returned to the stage with only Raghavan and Dutton for a beautiful, beguiling rendering of "Body & Soul." Before diving into the only standard of the evening, Akinmusire smiled and, after making only brief introductions and periodic acknowledgements of the band before, told the room that he was "tripping out" the entire set, thinking about how, for the first time, he was the oldest person in the band. At age 35, Akinmusire is no elder. While When The Heart Emerges Glistening (2011) gave a broader audience to a performer with a beautiful and original sound and the imagined savior is far easier to paint (2014) showed his skills as a composer and arranger, Akinmusire's performance in D.C. highlighted a truly consummate musician. There is much to look forward to in this upcoming tour and release.


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