Casting a spell might just be the real goal of any artist. The filmmaker hopes to create a world that you will enter, the novelist wants you to see her landscape in your mind’s eye, the dancer might have you see all the universe in the sweep of a limb. Music can do that. It enters you almost without permission, even in the dark. A song gets stuck in your head; a melody sets a mood; a shimmer of cymbal can put a chill across your cheek.
Ambrose Akinmusire is a fresh jazz trumpeter who understands mood, who has set about doing things differently, making music that you haven’t quite heard before. He won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trumpet competition in 2007, but the real emergence was in 2011, with his debut recording on Blue Note, a stunner that seemed to re-imagine a modern jazz trumpet vocabulary to include fresh sounds and daring intervals without taking leave of the tradition. Akinmusire’s new disc, The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint, is even more remarkable and fresh.
And, goodness, does it cast a spell.
The basic unit on this recording remains Akinmusire’s quintet, a very flexible band with Walter Smith III on saxophone, pianist Sam Harris, drummer Justin Brown, and Harish Raghavan on bass. This group morphs itself in a variety of ways, from a hard bop quintet to an impressionistic unit bathed in guitar reverb to a spare chamber group. Not only does the leader supplement the band with guitar, but he also spikes the recording with a variety of guests and sub-groupings that make the experience of The Imagined Savior not so much a thrill ride as a slow cinematic unfolding of different tensions, landscapes, and emotions.
There are four vocal performances on Savior, each distinct and remarkable. The first, an original song by Becca Stevens, is so gorgeously crafted that it is very nearly believable as a radio hit—or at least an indie-pop sensation. “Our Basement (Ed)” describes a narrator speaking to a beloved, “Your eyes were aglow like two moons / And your smile shot through me / Tranquilizing all the ache” but then reveals that the object of her desire is actually just a stranger passing, “I imagine you / Doing simple things / . . . Singing out the words that move you / Down the avenue / While I watch you walk past me.” The song is built around a heartbeat throb of drums, a very simple set of chiming piano chords, and a tiptoe of a string quartet arrangement. But what may be most astonishing is that the whole arrangement is built to feature Akinmusire playing a set of hushed but angular trumpet parts: a conventional improvised solo in the middle, but also a continual and perfectly modulated set of countermelodies that weave around the vocal and arrangement. It is purely beautiful.
Cold Specks delivers a haunting story of a troubled young woman in “Ceaseless Inexhaustible Child”, and there is a chilling and eerie recitation of the names of young victims of gunfire in “Rollcall for Those Absent”. Also superb is a feature for singer Theo Bleckmann. “Asiam” begins as an art song for Bleckmann and piano, but the band enters to interlock with a set of keening wordless vocal layers that cushion another pastel trumpet solo.
The instrumental tracks are not, however, secondary. For every track that has a somewhat standard sounding propulsive groove (the kind of thing you might once have expected to hear on a Blue Note recording such as the drum-driven “Memo” or the more melancholy “As We Fight”), there is an arrangement that greatly breaks the mold. “J.E. Nilmah”, for example, starts with a set of squiggles and pokes by guitar, piano, and trumpet that slowly develop into a lurching theme for the ensemble that has an unusual time signature. “The Beauty of Dissolving Portraits” brings the string quartet back, along with flute, and the resulting melody sounds somewhat like the first few minutes of Miles’s “In a Silent Way”—beautifully a-tempo, pensive, dramatic. And, wow, is the Harris/Akinmusire duet “Marie Christie” a riveting and impressionistic display of trumpet acrobatics.
Charles Altura brings several tunes a special feeling on guitar. (The band has been playing gigs lately with Altura making it a regular sextet.) “Vartha” is a lush mid-tempo piece given the lift of the guitar’s buoyancy, and he plays a spikey acoustic along with the melody on “Bubbles”, which uses a revolving form to great advantage.
The virtues of The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint are, finally, so varied and many that some readers of this review may wonder if it sounds disjointed. And the answer is no. Even though Akinmusire cycles his music through four different vocal performances, several different combinations of instruments, mixing genres with abandon along the way, the result is unified in the best sense. Akinmusire’s voice on trumpet is a clear through-line that brings one very interesting voice to every song. The variations in tone, form, and emotion make Imagined Savior a satisfying journey rather than an immersion in a single mood, such that listening to this album as it was conceived and put together by a great artist is a whole, marvelous experience.
Ambrose Akinmusire, with his two most recent recordings, stakes a claim as one of the very best musicians in jazz – or any other style of music. He won’t be contained. Neither will your emotions as you soak up this daring, fulfilling, perfectly crafted 80 minutes of music.