PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Music

Ambrose Akinmusire Muses 'on the tender spot of every calloused moment'

The most notable trumpet player in jazz today, Ambrose Akinmusire, creates a major recording focusing on his quartet leaping from mode to mode.

on the tender spot of every calloused moment
Ambrose Akinmusire

Blue Note

12 June 2020

There is considerable excitement in hearing an artist with the ambition and accomplishment of trumpeter Ambrose Akinsusire as he pares back the tools he brings to a new project. Although his quartet featuring pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Justin Brown has been a staple of his arsenal for years, his last two studio recordings featured string players, rappers, contributions from singer-songwriters, and more, all bringing a huge array of colors and interest to his vision. These acclaimed Blue Note recordings weren't overproduced as much as they were works of reach, of expansion.

on the tender spot of every calloused moment is also ambitious and rich in different colors, but it puts the spotlight more clearly on the quartet alone. Although two of the 11 tracks momentarily spotlight singers Jesus Diaz and Genevieve Artadi, they are not as central to their tracks as, say, Becca Stevens was to the song she wrote for Akinsusire's the imagined savior is far easier to paint in 2014. Rather, the new recording dares Akinmusire to achieve his varied goals within a narrower palette. It cranks up the tension, and Akinmusire delivers the goods.

Among his many strengths, this exceptional improviser and soloist is very good at steering away from the expected. From the first moments of his 2011 Blue Note debut when the heart emerges glistening, Akinmusire has demonstrated a fresh trumpet voice. He uses a range of tonal colors with exceptional control, and he can mine unusual intervals in creating melodies that rarely sounded like "the usual" blues-based licks that jazz players had been leaning on for decades. To find a new sound and approach—neither neo-traditional nor simply discordant—in jazz's second decade? Wow.

That trumpet voice is fully on display on tender spot, as is Akinmusire's ability to guide his quartet through a set of performances that can sound as varied as any of his more elaborate sets. Unlike 2017's A Rift in the Decorum: Live at the Village Vanguard, Akinmusire allows Harris some electric sounds and brings in those two guest vocals. But it remains that there is no small group that is more capable of vaulting from one sound or approach to another. The band captures post-bop impressionism in a stunning bottle on "Mr. Roscoe (consider the simultaneous)", achieves sublime atmosphere through atonal playing on "Blues (We measure the heart with a fist)", and also has a gear that is precise and complex in the new jazz style on "Moon (the return amplifies the unity)".

As you might imagine, the band often moves from one mode to another on a single performance. The opening track, "Tide of Hyacinth", begins with two-plus minutes of measured free improvisation across a wide range. It's followed the entry of a rolling piano figure in tumbling 4/4 time that allows Harris to play ferociously varied chordal figures and arpeggios as the band pushes him and pulls him back to the melody. A brief composed duet for just piano and trumpet then introduces a new Afro-Cuban rhythm that allows Jesus Diaz to enter with a sung interlude with overdubbed harmony in an African language. Only after this does Akinmusire take his first real "jazz"-type solo over Brown and Raghavan's roiling polyrhythmic groove.

Is that too much business in a single composition? Akinmusire may have anticipated such a thought, as the next performance on the album is "Yessss", a somber textural exercise that stays largely within a single, gorgeous tonal area. The opening theme is beautifully composed for trumpet, piano, and bowed bass in consonant sonic beauty, every instrument in about the same range at first—trumpet low in its range, acoustic bass high, piano in the middle, all blending expertly—and then welcoming Brown's drums to the procession. Harris layers a humming analog synth above the patient solo that follows for Akinmusire. You might call the track soothing were it not for the tensile power of the improvising.

This patient approach often recurs on tender spot. "reset (quiet victories & celebrated defeats)" is a dead-slow ballad that allows Akinmusire to play in his higher but still smooth upper register, often in a careful octave with Harris's single-note piano line. The band plays mostly simple whole notes beneath him, each rung like a breath taken in free, relative time. And the stately "Roy" (I suspect a tribute to the recently passed trumpeter Roy Hargrove) is another tune with a processional feeling that remains consonant. Brown's brushes nudge it along, with Harris's gorgeous blues-tinted minor piano part interlocking with the trumpet in a manner spare but riveting. In the last moment, just before the track ends, Akinmusire half-valves his horn into a twist of blues playing that sounds like a beautiful sob.

Raghavan gets a solo feature at the beginning of "An Interlude (that get' more intense)", staying low and throbbing before the band enters with a flowing theme that recalls the mood of Coltrane's "A Love Supreme". Brown, Raghavan, and Harris evoke that famous rhythm section under the trumpet lead, which moves from composed to improvised elements and back again with grace. Harris plays his best solo of the session here, not crashing the way McCoy Tyner would have, but rising in waves that chime and bring the sunlight in.

Perhaps the three most unusual modes that Alkinmusire gets out of the band are simply achieved through subtraction. "4623" is a 30-second improvisation for just his trumpet, recorded a bit off-microphone such that the overtones of this series of brilliant flurries seem like a second instrument in unison with the leader. "cynical sideliners" is a duet for Genevieve Artadi's whispered vocal and Harris playing a Fender Rhodes electric piano. It is a glistening harmonic puzzle that seems to rotate around in a romantic circle: "Here's what's true / It's you / Only you / It's true / Here's what's true / It's you", with Harris's chords shifting like a microscope looking for something tiny and beautiful.

The most haunting of all is the other track that features Rhodes, "Hooded procession (read the names aloud)". Harris rings a series of chords, with decaying notes, held just long enough before the next cluster is hit. Again, it is a (literal) procession. And if the title suggests graduation, then at the moment of this recording's release in early June of 2020, it also suggests a different kind of reading of names, a different kind of litany. On Akinmusire's 2014 recording, he brought us "Rollcall for Those Absent", with a child's voice reciting the names of black Americans murdered by police or through other racist violence, and the new track suggests something similar. But here, there is no voice, just Harris's plaintive accompaniment. The suggestion is that it's time for the listener to provide that recitation, to "read the names aloud" her or himself. And the list keeps getting longer, day to day, so why even try to update it?

This is final track on on the tender spot of every calloused moment, and it suggests the meaning of Akinmusire's ambiguous album title. Soft and tough are both good words for this astonishing quartet and its latest work. It is a recording of a mature artist who seems in the process of embracing both the breadth of his interests and the focus of which he is capable. Tough and tender, both, Ambrose Akinmusire is making creative music that burns with personal intensity, expressing feeling through a modern jazz language that encompasses post-bop impressionism, Coltrane-esque incantation, improvisation beyond chord changes, and the 21st-century new jazz of complex composition.

Akinmusire seems particularly mature as an artist and particularly within the "jazz" tradition because his work, daring and modern and moving easily across boundaries, is still grounded in some of the core jazz values. Those are the primacy of blues playing, the vitality of distinctive and individual sound, and healthy and creative engagement within the popular music of the time, and engagement with his culture, socially politically. He is individual enough to evade facile comparisons to his predecessors. Still, in how he stands as part of this tradition, he is reminiscent of folks like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, as well as Cecil Taylor or Julius Hemphill. He had inherited much, and work like on the tender spot of every calloused moment if giving a great deal back as well.

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Music

Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."

Music

50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.

Film

Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.

Film

The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.

Music

Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Music

'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.

Music

Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.

Music

MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.