Ambrose Akinmusire was born in 1982, a symbolic and transformational year in jazz. Wynton Marsalis had just released his self-titled debut album on Columbia Records, while he was still a part of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. This album would prove symbolic, as it represented what was to come; a desperately needed re-emergence and preponderance of acoustic and straight-ahead jazz. This revitalization during the 1980s produced several pivotal artists who bridged the cultural gap, and served as the catalysts who incited the current generation of jazz musicians. Now, almost exactly thirty years later, Oakland native Akinmusire is at the apex of a similar potential revival.
Winner of the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trumpet Competition, Akinmusire has been on the jazz radar as a paramount player for a few years now. Fast forward to the present… Downbeat Magazine named Akinmusire both Rising Star Jazz Artist of the Year and Rising Star Trumpet in their 2011 Critics Poll, in addition to giving his Blue Note debut, When the Heart Emerges Glistening, a glowing four-star review. The Los Angeles Times named Akinmusire one of their 2011 “Faces to Watch” and The New York Times has also hailed the virtuoso, placing him on everyone’s it-list. Now this time, the critics are unanimously on the money. Akinmusire and his quintet have emerged as a force with which to be reckoned; raising the stakes when it comes to individuality, intent, vision and modernism.
Unlike the respective eras of his predecessors; when Blanchard, Payton and Hargrove exploded onto the scene, Akinmusire has arrived at a time when there is so much disparity, discrepancy and downright indifference about jazz. Follow any social media threads about the genre and it’s instantly apparent that there are a lot of disparaging sentiments toward the general state of jazz and every imaginable (and sometimes unimaginable) sub-context. And whether you agree or take issue with what’s on the table, the underlying truth is that people are frustrated, making Akinmusire’s advent that much more substantial.
Much of the jazz audience proclaims an air of stagnation, lack of inventiveness and compromise of the art form. Akinmusire agrees. These subjects are compounded by matters of race, culture and the overall state of the music industry, making the waters for diagnosis conveniently murky for most, but not all. “I don’t think many people are doing it,” Akinmusire blatantly states. “I think a lot of people want the approval of critics, so they end up dumbing their shit down.”
For Akinmusire, the intent is first and needs to be established long before getting on the band stand. His quintet is made up of close friends and long-time collaborators: tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Harish Raghavan and fellow Oakland native, drummer Justin Brown. Growing up in Oakland, Akinmusire’s philosophies about loyalty and community are entrenched in his artistry. “I try to be as honest as possible with myself. I try not to hang out with people who I don’t like. I try to trust my instinct. In five seconds of being around somebody, I know whether or not I can really vibe with them. So, I think that’s related to the music too. I try to surround myself with musicians who I feel challenged by as opposed to musicians who are just killing. I try to surround myself with musicians who I don’t know how they’re going to sound six months from now, or five years from now, or ten years. If I hear somebody playing, and I can say OK, twenty years from now, I know exactly how they’re going to sound; I don’t really fuck with them. I think all of that is related.”
From the opening track of When the Heart Emerges Glistening, there is a relentless fire which rages from the band, causing a neck-snapping reaction from the listener. It is reminiscent, but only in the sense that you are transported to a time when jazz as a whole was courageous and bold. The telepathic nature of the band’s interaction and the ensuing execution is mind-blowing. “I think that everybody in the band is extremely hard on themselves; they’re never satisfied,” says Akinmusire, as he tries to put their chemistry into words. “Like, if we had the best performance ever, and you come backstage, we’re all gonna be sitting there with our heads down like ‘Man, that sucked I need to practice.’ Everybody is constantly shedding and trying to move forward. And there are no egos in the band at all…at all. Nobody ever gets mad at the other person for messing up or changing parts or anything like that. So, I think there’s that and also we’ve known each other for so long. I grew up with Justin. I met him when he was in middle school. I’ve known Walter since 2001. Harish, I’ve known for maybe 6 years. Gerald, I met when he was still in high school, and Sam Harris (the new pianist in the group), I went to Manhattan School of Music with him. And I just grew up like that. I grew up in North Oakland and there’s this saying that you stick with your crew from the beginning to the end, even if there have been some weird, funny development issues, it will eventually…you know…it’s like family. No matter what, you’re supposed to have their back. I think that everybody who I have in the band has the same sort of outlook and I think you hear that in the music.
To co-produce the album, Akinmusire called upon his mentor, fellow Manhattan School alum, and Blue Note label mate, Jason Moran, to help translate the magic which is so essential to the band, to record format. “I didn’t have to explain anything to him; that’s why I picked him, because he’s all about hitting and being real honest…he embodies that in his art,” explains Akinmusire, who wanted the album to feel as raw and in-the-moment as possible. “It was just a constant reminder to come out of the booth and see Jason sitting there. It was like, I gotta be about the music. I can’t be like I’m on Blue Note and stressing about this shit. He helped to relax me and helped me to remember my purpose as an artist.”
This element of intangible guidance and rearing from Moran is quite familiar to Akinmusire. Having never had a trumpet lesson until he reached college, he honed his skills as a trumpeter in a very unconventional fashion, especially for these days of extreme institutionalization of the music. Akinmusire recalls, “I went to a jazz camp… I don’t know how we heard about it. Maybe there was a flier at the school, and I went. And all these old-school musicians were teaching there and they sort of became my mentors. Bassist Herbie Lewis… I met him, and then Donald Bailey, who played with Jimmy Smith and all these people. They just sort of started mentoring me. They would pick me up from the house, and take me record shopping or bring me on their gigs, and I would just sit there. Some taught at college. They would pick me up and take me to their college classes. They really just started mentoring me. I never really had a teacher. I didn’t sit there and play rudimental studies, and stuff, it was really ‘groid’, like ‘Here’s a trumpet and I’m going to teach you about the history…about the music.’ Just through stories, just old-school style. Like, most of these guys, they were old-school. They didn’t know shit about classical studies, they just picked their shit up and played…smoked weed; some of them were ex-Black Panthers, like real ‘groid’, you know? I mean, I would get with Roy [Hargrove] and Nick [Payton] when they came into town like, ‘Is my embouchure OK? Yeah? OK, cool.’ But I never had a lesson.”
This crucial piece of Akinmusire’s story is no doubt the principal component of the development of his prodigious voice. It also manifested as an expected point of contention, when he got to the collegiate juncture of study. “By the time I came to high school, I already knew Billy Higgins, I knew Joe Henderson. So you got these cats [at Manhattan School] telling me blah-blah-blah, and I’m thinking, ‘That’s not what he was just telling me.’ So there was a lot of arguing.”
The institutionalized setting in which jazz has found itself engulfed, is one of the most debated issues, with most viewing the predicament as a double-edged sword. The argument being, that while the formal setting of jazz in schools gives exposure to young people who may not have otherwise discovered the art form, in a time where venues for jazz are closing at record speed, and pop-culture is eerily dominating, the flip side is an ill-appropriate, overly-Westernized approach to jazz, stripping it of its most essential elements; otherwise known as its “Blackness”.
We’re all being honest here, right?
The overall discontentment with jazz is comfortably enigmatic, until you dig deeper and realize this “thing” everyone is missing, is the part which is most ancestral and least able to be captured in a school setting severely devoid of Black people. Consequently there are two broad views: One which has many Black people arguing that they are being written out of the jazz “present” and conversely, the other has many people strongly, but naively believing there is no room or relevance for race in a discussion regarding jazz. Akinmusire’s take is based on neither premise, per se and as in his music, Akinmusire’s honesty is no bullshit.
“I don’t think you can take someone’s culture,” he explains. “Once something becomes tangible, then you can take it away and that’s because we don’t have it here in our hearts. So maybe that’s why I don’t understand [the first viewpoint]. It’s like, I’m Black; you can’t take that away from me. I live jazz; you can’t take that away from me. If we have a whole community who understands that it’s here [points to his heart], you can’t take that away from us. That’s the way it was with the be-boppers, before jazz education came and made it this tangible thing and a lot of people started believing it.”
The moment he said that to me, my vision cleared. Honestly, it never really dawned on me that the onus might be on the Black jazz community, or lack thereof. Akinmusire was born to a Mississippi-raised mother, and a Nigerian father; neither of whom were musical or very familiar with jazz. The first musician on either side of his family, who was discovered by jazz, and not the other way around, Akinmusire truly speaks from a rare and untainted perspective.
“To say ‘this is ours’…that’s a known thing, we don’t need to necessarily say that, and saying it is not necessarily going to make people not want to take it away if that’s what they’re trying to do. It’s just going to exclude people like, ‘Oh I can’t do that.’ And those people might have valid things to say and contribute to the music. I think if you just live that…like, to me, Mark Turner is like that. He’ll never say a word. Or, like Marcus Gilmore. These cats don’t talk, but if you get on the band stand with them, you know you have to deal, and that’s some black shit. Like yeah, this is our music. But if you’re not stepping up to the plate and playing like that, then yeah you have to talk ‘They’re taking it away.’ You think Trane had to say that? He didn’t have to say nothing. You think Lee Konitz was going to get up there with the John Coltrane Quartet? You don’t have to say nothing.”
It was a bucket of ice water thrown to the face, but I’m wide awake and that’s a good thing. The truth is, Black art forms have been habitually and historically compromised, but there comes a time when the discussion has to lead to a diagnosis and the diagnosis has to lead to a treatment and then, the treatment has to begin and Akinmusire, through his words, but ultimately through his music, has given jazz a serious bedside visit.
“George Wein hit me up last year and was like, ‘I want you to play at Zankel Hall,’” Akinmusire tells me as we stroll down a Williamsburg street on a sunny Brooklyn afternoon. “He wanted the quintet. I said, ‘How about I do a big band…an all-black big band?’ He was like, ‘Yeah it’s cool! Is that because you want to reclaim the music?’ I said, ‘No…it’s just that I want the community; I miss the community.’ When I was coming up it was really inspiring. I used to go out and see Roy Hargrove, Eric Lewis, Marcus and EJ Strickland, Bilal…that shit was so inspiring for me to come to New York and see all these great Black musicians just really trying to push themselves and now that doesn’t really happen and I think that the music is suffering because of the lack of community of Blacks. If we don’t have a community, we can’t really complain, so I think that’s what needs to happen first.”
That sense of community also influences Akinmusire’s writing, as he composes specifically with his tightly knit quintet in mind. He says of the interwoven nature of his band, “It’s a blessing and a curse because I can’t write for anybody else, because I’ve been playing with Walter for so long. Justin is the only drummer I’ve been playing with consistently for the last thirteen years. I mean there was Zach Harmon, when I was working at the Monk Institute. That was two years. But really, with all of my compositions, I’m hearing Justin. So when I play with other people, when they try to interpret their way it just doesn’t feel right… same thing with Walter. He has such a specific sound and tone and way of phrasing and you know, we phrase together so when I play with somebody else and they’re not really getting it, I find myself feeling uneasy and getting upset… same thing with Harish.” Akinmusire penned twelve of the thirteen songs on When the Heart Emerges Glistening, his pieces as distinguished and refreshing as his playing. The album feels cinematic, in part with a theme-like pensiveness throughout. There is nothing surface about this album, but it never compromises its accessibility. It is one of the most modern statements to come along in a while, with the culmination of history that is obviously Akinmusire’s foundation clearly not acting as a hindrance to his singular voice.
“I feel like people who consider themselves traditionalists are ignorant, and that comes from a lack of understanding that whatever it is you’re analyzing is related to the history of that time,” says Akinmusire about the strongholds which many so-called jazz purists have cemented in their expectations. “So bebop was relating to what was happening at that time and it was modern at that time. So I just try to play the music that’s of the now right now and that’s related to me and I just try to be honest with who I am. Today I feel this way and tomorrow I may feel another way and I think it takes courage to say what I thought yesterday was wrong and I think a lot of people are scared to do that. That’s one thing my girlfriend has taught me. She’s very honest and she will die for honesty, and that’s something that has affected my music… same thing with my mom.”
What is most treasurable about Akinmusire is that like the title of this record, which represents a stripping down of all that is apparent to expose what is really important in life, he himself, stripped of the critical acclaim and accolades is, at his core, the epitome of an artist. The word honesty or a variation of such is used in this piece alone fourteen times, not because of redundancy on my part, or naïveté on Akinmusire’s. But because it’s the engine of innovation; the thing which will help elevate jazz to its purpose once more.♦