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All Ears On Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire

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Walk into any college jam session and you’re likely to hear about trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. Whether they’re talking about him, playing one of his tunes, or dropping one of his lines in a solo, jazz students are paying attention to Akinmusire’s music.

Akinmusire brings a whole new sound to the trumpet, drawing from a wide variety of timbres with chortles, soaring octaves, and breathy notes. Winner of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition and Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition, Akinmusire has toured and played with artists like Steve Coleman, Esperanza Spalding, and Aaron Parks. On March 12, he’ll bring his unique tone and style to the Regattabar in Cambridge with his quintet consisting of Walter Smith III on tenor sax, Justin Brown on drums, Harish Raghavan on bass, and Sam Harris on piano. The performance will come a day after his second album for Blue Note, “the imagined savior is far easier to paint,” is released. The album features the quintet with Charles Altura, but also includes tracks with the Osso String Quartet and flutist Elena Pinderhughes, as well as vocalists Becca Stevens, Theo Bleckmann, and Cold Specks.

I spoke with Akinmusire about his musical process and new album:

You’ve been working with your quintet for about three years. What’s it like to work with them?

I feel really lucky and fortunate and just inspired by everybody in the band. They’re committed to the music and the craft and there’s no egos, there’s no people wanting to be stars or anything like that. It’s really cool to have a band that’s filled with people like that. To know people and get along as human beings. All these guys are my friends, and they’re friends with each other, so it’s cool when you’re on the road or when you’re gigging, because it just feels like a hang or a party or something like that. You’re on the job, but it’s still fun.

Aside from the track by Becca Stevens, you wrote all the music for this new album. What’s your process for composing?

I try to have as much on the table as possible. I try to have as much non-musical information as possible. I usually start with a title or a story or a character or a name or a location or something and I try to build from that with words or just feelings, then after that I try to analyze what’s really going on in the story. Then I try to figure out how to represent those things musically in terms of form, or chord changes, or contour of melody, and I kind of go from there. That’s another thing with this band. Usually when I bring tunes in to the band, they’re maybe 95 percent completed, and then we play through them. A lot of times, for the first time on the gig we’ll play through them, just to see what naturally happens, just to see what we want to do. So that’s the process.

From the string quartet and the flute to the vocals and electronic effects, you work with a range of instrumentation on this album. What made you want to include these sounds? 

There were a couple of things I wanted to address, like the inability to sustain a note in a jazz quintet. You know, it’s really hard, with piano and trumpet and saxophone, but with strings they can hold a note forever, and if you have Theo Bleckmann he can put electronics on a song and the notes can go on forever, so you can get this melting thing, notes into notes, that I’m really into. So that was one specific thing I wanted to address, but a lot of the people I chose because I like them as people and as musicians. The string quartet, and Elena on flute, and each vocalist, it’s the same.

What made you want to include more vocalists on this album?

It wasn’t for any type of commercial reason. A lot of people they say, ok I need to work on getting a wider audience so let me just get a vocalist. For me, I’m super influenced by voice. It’s really the thing that has influenced me the most so far in my career as a musician and an artist so it’s really natural for me to play with vocalists. My favorite musician/artist in history is Joni Mitchell. So yeah, I’ve always wanted to work with vocalists. I really hear vocals all the time when I’m writing stuff, a lot of my compositions I sing and then I transcribe. I always hear my compositions first coming out of the voice, not the instrument. So that’s why I chose to have vocalists. Now these specific vocalists, I’m just a huge fan of all three of them. They don’t sing in a traditional type of way and it was great to have them in mind when choosing tunes for them because I didn’t feel limited at all. Becca and Theo and Cold Specks—they’re all great lyricists too so that’s how I decided to work with them.

Tell me about the track “Rollcall For Those Absent.” How did you come up with that?

I think this would be the time to have a black man actually use their platform to yell something a little bit grander than just yelling “look at me, look at me.” And I think that’s the role of the artist, to liberate people from their ignorance. Not in a condescending way, but just to educate people. On my last album I had “My Name is Oscar” and I would be in Belgrade or some random place and someone would say, “So who is Oscar Grant?” and I would get to tell them about this guy who was killed in Oakland. So that’s why I did that. To be more specific about the way I did it, I think there are a lot of stories that did not get the media coverage that Trayvon Martin did or Oscar Grant did and so I wanted to have someone reading these names. At the beginning it’s just like, “Wait what is going on” and then in the middle I say Trayvon Martin and it’s like “oh, whoa, okay.” so you’re telling me that all these guys have similar stories as Trayvon? And then I read the names again and then at the end I tie them in with Oscar Grant and I have them overlap. They’re the same—this happened before, it’s happening now, and it’s going to continue to happen. I chose to have Muna, who’s five years old, read it because there’s something about the beginning of life talking about the end of life that I’m really into. Not necessarily a kid talking about death, but just the beginning and the end and putting them right by each other and rubbing them together to see what they produce. The friction of that is something that I’m really into.

Ambrose Akinmusire (left) plays at the Jazz Standard with his quintet. (MWAMLLC, YouTube)
Ambrose Akinmusire (left) plays at the Jazz Standard with his quintet. (MWAMLLC, YouTube)

Have you spent much time in Boston?

When I was at Manhattan School of Music I used to come to Boston a lot. I would come and I would go and listen to Jason Palmer over at Wally’s Cafe. I would go and sit with him and he would kick my butt and I would come back the next month. I used to go there a lot. Actually, I met Walter there.

You’re having such a strong influence on the next generation of players. How do you feel about that and what advice do you give to jazz students?

It’s honestly really hard for me to even imagine it. Okay, I’ll be a little more honest. I’m more aware of it now than I was in the past. I live in Los Angeles and maybe a lot of that has to do with me moving—just to stay grounded and not be aware of my influence. But on the other hand it does inspire me to know that people are watching me, to know that another generation is watching me. And I’ve met many of the other students and they sound so amazing. Really, really amazing. There are students at Manhattan School of Music and Berklee that are really inspiring. It’s not something that I really, really understand.

What I will say is that it’s important to check out the history while checking out the present and including yourself in the present and also looking towards the future. This notion of “I’m gonna check out everything in history and then I’ll start thinking about who I am as an artist”—you’re never going to learn everything that came before you so it’s important to do these things at the same time. Checking out Louis Armstrong, whatever it is, and looking towards the future while checking in with yourself.

Claire Dickson Contributor, The ARTery
Claire Dickson is a jazz vocalist and writer studying at Harvard College.

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