Jazz musicians who play the trumpet seem to receive greater scrutiny, historically. Maybe it’s because Louis Armstrong was the first crucial, revolutionary figure in the history of this art, but the culture around the music always seems to be looking for the next trumpet player, the next master, the next leader.
How many have there really been? Armstrong, Eldridge, Gillespie, Brown, Davis …? Beyond that, it gets into taste and argument, but even just that list suggests why it’s a mantle that is worn as a burden of some kind. Wynton Marsalis wanted the mantle, perhaps, and has worn it through both controversy and establishment enshrinement via Jazz at Lincoln Center, which now would appear to be his eventual legacy. Other trumpet players who were at the very top — I’m thinking of Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, and Woody Shaw — seemed to wear down or come to a difficult end.
There are plenty of brilliant trumpet players under 40 who work in the tradition of these greats. I’m not suggesting, by this review, that Ambrose Akinmusire has earned a spot at the top. But the scope of his ambition, the quality of his art, and the exposure he has gained by recording audacious records for Blue Note places him in the spotlight.
Akinmusire’s third Blue Note release is the kind of thing you create when you are trying to make a mark: a live recording from jazz’s hallowed Village Vanguard in New York with a small group. A Rift in Decorum (Akinmusire has a thing for longish, literary-sounding album and song titles) is also a two-disc set containing almost two hours of music, every composition an original. In the recent past, these kinds of records were “statement” recordings. For example, Marsalis’s Live at Blues Alley was a sweeping demonstration of his aesthetic: flatly breathtaking trumpet brilliance mainly serving a group of classic jazz material. Later, at the Vanguard, Marsalis recorded live with his septet, setting the table for his next incarnation as a composer in the Ellington tradition.
Akinmusire is also stating his agenda here, and he’s doing it in the hallowed Vanguard tradition with few frills in the form of a quartet. His previous recording, The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint was built from many different sounds (a string quartet, flute, guitar, Mellotron, as well as his quintet with a saxophone joining him in the front line) and many different voices (singers Becca Stevens, Theo Bleckmann, and Cold Specks; also recitations). On the new record, Akinmusire is supported by his trio alone: Sam Harris on piano, bassist Harish Raghavan, and Justin Brown on drums. The record is all the more a success for its simplicity.
The aesthetic of this artist is not one of muscular virtuosity. Akinmusire, though he possesses real brilliance as an expressive technician on his instrument, is interested in staking his claim in a different way. His composing and playing is atmospheric, sly, and marked by a thoughtful compromise between the post-bop conventions of the 1960s (the innovations of Miles Davis’s second quintet and, say, Andrew Hill’s wonderful work) and 21st century jazz modernism that borrows from both hip-hop and improvised “new music”. Is there a name for this kind of music yet? Nope, but Akinmusire is finding his way into fresh territory here, much as contemporaries such as Kris Davis, Darius Jones, Matt Mitchell, or Craig Taborn are.
There are moments when Akinmusire seems heir to the thrilling, muscular Marsalis of 1985’s Black Codes (From the Underground). The opener, “Maurice and Michael (sorry I didn’t say hello)” finds the rhythm section rollicking and galloping with a Latin groove while the leader stays mostly within an aggressive post-bop style. “H.A.M.S. (in the spirit of honesty)” stays up-tempo and fitful throughout, using a dancing set of swing lines that conclude with sudden rushes of notes. “Taylor’s World” is fleet and gorgeous, with an attractive but simple theme that features six notes descending in swinging pairs. More melodically angular is “Trumpet Sketch”, which still displays the kind of momentum and drive that we associate with that earlier genre, even if Harris’s solo is an 8.3 on the Cecil Taylor scale.
More often, however, Akinmusire works a territory of either introspection or experimental impressionism. “A Song to Exhale (Diver Song)” is a gentle ballad that leaves room to sketch a lovely theme but also to run the leader’s sound into the gaps of the harmony, bending and cracking notes, fishing for ideas beyond merely “pretty”. “First Page” is an exceptionally controlled performance, with a composed opening that alternates a slow trumpet melody with a stately theme for piano and bass together — leading to a horn improvisation of such tonal beauty and patience that it really becomes a collective improvisation for the whole band. In so many of these performances, the prevailing mood is one of anticipation and dramatic tension. Although jazz often boasts this, with Akinmusire’s band, is it true: you have no idea what the next note will be.
There are also performances on A Rift in Decorum that defy easy categorization, and this is where the band is most interesting. “Piano Sketch” unleashes pianist Sam Harris, working in a gospel mode, first on his own then joined by the band, as a melodic adventure that is as appealing as anything by the Pat Metheny band. Alternately, “Withered” uses a shifting tempo to create a chamber jazz sound that also plays with dynamics and arrangement to keep a listener fascinated without the presence of classic melodic improvisation. “Brooklyn (ODB)” finds its way to a conventional melody but it mostly aggressively presents Harris’s restless piano in stabbing, rumbling conversation with the trumpet. This is not “free jazz” but instead a riveting performance that allows both tonal and harmonic dissonance to play a key role in working around a catchy theme and a daring platform for improvising.
“Moment in Between the Rest (to curve an ache)” is my favorite track on the recording. A lovely, elegiac theme in triple meter, this tune works toward an unconventionally gorgeous trumpet solo. Akinmusire uses smears, atonal melodic choices, grunts, and breathy exhalations, but he does it in delicious contrast with a rhythm section that is almost old-fashioned in its precision and measure. It gives you chills.
And that is why I listen to Ambrose Akinmusire. In his few mature albums, he has consistently found new ways to touch me, to chill me to the core, with what seems like a unique, original twist on the tradition of American improvised music. His voice comes from weird angles, his band seeks and finds mysterious, urgent settings, and his compositions are like questions that I can’t answer. If past records called on dozens of ingredients to build something gorgeous, this document shows that the music works even at a simple core.
Is Akinmusire a trumpet god? Maybe he’s something better: a truly creative, original, and complete musical artist.