September 14th, 2010
Ambrose Akinmusire at Tula’s September 11th, 2010
As Peter Monaghan wrote for Earshot Jazz “Ambrose Akinmusire has laid down a challenge for himself, and seems set on sweeping it away. Over the last few years, he has provoked expectations that he will be among the next big things in jazz – always a risky undertaking, and of course not one that the musicians who are lumbered with the tag often invite themselves.
Akinmusire has been, indeed, somewhat reluctant to accept the mantle. But you don’t do what he did in 2007 and not acquire it. That year, he won both the Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition and the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition.
The Monk competition, open to any musician without a record release, has become a much-publicized bellwether of impending jazz stardom, with such winners as pianist Marcus Roberts, vocalist Jane Monheit, and saxophonist Joshua Redman. And Akinmusire steps along that path.
Before he was 18, the Oakland, California-raised Akinmusire (whose name is pronounced “ah-KIN-moo-SEE-ray,” and who was born in 1982) had already performed with saxophone legend Joe Henderson, Joshua Redman, saxophonist Steve Coleman, and drum legend Billy Higgins. After graduating from Berkeley High School, he moved to New York to attend the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied on a scholarship. He then completed a master’s degree at the University of Southern California, and next studied at the Thelonious Monk Institute, where his instructors included Terence Blanchard and Billy Childs. Through his attendance there, he also played with some of the biggest names in jazz, including Jimmy Heath, Jason Moran, Ron Carter, Wallace Roney, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter.
Not bad, all before one’s mid-20s. Akinmusire counts the Monk Institute as crucial to his development. “It really changed my life,” he says from his New York home. “I was in the program [then at the University of Southern California, now at Loyola University in New Orleans] before I won the competition. They set the combo every two years. That’s where I got to study with [composer and arranger] Vince Mendoza, [pianist] Billy Childs, Terence Blanchard every month, and Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter – we went on tour with them. It was just a life-changing experience to see the behind-the-scenes of all these people I really idolized. [Saxophonist] Jimmy Heath came, and [saxophonist] Benny Golson came. [Bassist] Ron Carter came twice, and I got to sit down with these masters, and really get to just observe them for a week straight.
“It’s an amazing program. It’s turning out people like [vocalist] Gretchen Parlato and [guitarist] Lionel Loueke. [Saxophonist] Walter Smith [who is in his current quintet] was in it, with me.”
With all that experience already under his belt, it is no wonder that Akinmusire’s 2007, debut album, Prelude … to Cora (Fresh Sounds), was a cut above the pack. It won him praise as “a resourceful player with a fat, crackling tone and a plethora of ideas” (San Francisco Chronicle) and a reputation as a “fiercely gifted young trumpeter” (New York Times).
Variety found him “fond of languid, rippling patterns that emerge, echo, and gradually fade into the distance. They certainly don’t fade from memory, however. Despite their lack of showiness, compositions like ‘Aroca’ … manage to work their way under the skin, delivering a tickle one moment and an electric jolt the next.”
During his still-ongoing apprenticeship, he has also recorded as a sideman with Steve Coleman, pianist Vijay Iyer, bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding, and two rising Seattle-reared musicians, pianist Aaron Parks, his close friend from the Manhattan School of Music, and vocalist Sara Gazarek, whom he praises as a “ball of positivity.”
Akinmusire has been, indeed, savvy in his selection of musical companions. His quintet’s pianist is Gerald Clayton, the Netherlands-born son of LA bassist John Clayton, who at 26 is another up-and-comer. He is winning renown for his seamless embrace of everything from stride piano to 21st-century neo-soul. The DownBeat 2008 Readers’ Poll named him one of the top up-and-coming pianists to watch. The Jazz Gallery in New York City has commissioned a composition from him, while the BBC Orchestra has performed another. He has been honored with a Level 1 award by the National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts (NFAA), the title “Presidential Scholar in the Arts,” and second place in the Thelonious Monk Institute Jazz Piano Competition.
Also in the Akinmusire quintet is the drummer in Clayton’s band, Justin Brown, who comes with a reputation as a killer player; as one reviewer put it, “He is a phenomenal drummer; a ‘simple’ press roll can be a shock to the listener, like a spike of electric current through a circuit.”
The saxophonist in the Akinmusire quintet is Walter Smith, a tenor saxophonist who was Akinmusire’s classmate at the Thelonious Monk Institute and has toured with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. Bassist Harish Raghavan graduated from the University of Southern California where he studied with Gerald Clayton’s father.
The tour that brings the quintet to Seattle is in preparation for his second album, his first on a major label, and the culmination of almost three years of playing together. The band will go into the studio in September to record for Blue Note, which will near guarantee that he will become a prominent jazz musician, world wide.
The selections on the recording will all be his own originals, but he’ll also include interludes by Osso, a New York-based string quartet, and he says it might have “some treats for the ears, like I’m thinking of having a couple of tracks with celeste or harp, or something else, to cleanse the palate between the tracks, or something like that.”
Akinmusire says his first album was in some senses the closing of the first part of his career. Prelude … to Cora included tunes he was playing regularly, and “I just wanted to record them, and put them to rest,” he says.
The albums reception, however, was so positive that the tunes did not lie down: “One day we went into the studio and played, and next thing you know, everybody had the album.”
He was 25 at the time and unaware, by his own admission, of what making a recording could mean in terms of presenting himself to the public.
That will be to his fans’ benefit when his second album appears, because he says that by comparison with his first outing, “I’m going to play, on this one.”
The popularity of Prelude was driven by Akinmusire’s wins in the 2007 Caruso and Monk competitions, and it took him completely by surprise. “It was a little shocking, a little scary, really,” he says.
He admits that he didn’t really know how to take the acclaim: “Me, on a personal level, I’m kind of to myself. I have a few friends who know me well, but I don’t like attention, and I definitely don’t play music for attention, or any of that other stuff. So, to have people all of a sudden calling me and wanting to interview me, and getting calls from labels, it was really weird. I actually stopped returning emails and phone calls.”
But, he chuckles, “then I got a manager to help me out with it.
“If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be gigging; I’d rather just stay in my house and practice and play with my friends.”
But he adds: “I’ve come to terms with it, now, being a little bit older. I find that somehow people out there get something from me, and it would be selfish of me not to give it to them.”
Is he consciously looking for new directions in his craft?
“I’m just trying to be honest. It sounds like a very hippie ideal, but we’re all different, we’re all individuals, and if we tap into who we really are, and express that 100 percent, then we all would be doing something new. I think people get caught up in wanting to impress others or wanting to be accepted. I don’t really have that, I’m sort of myself, and I don’t really apologize for that.
“Some people come up to me and say, ‘Ambrose, you’re the next innovator,’ and I just tell them, ‘Man, I’m just being myself.’ We’re all different; we all have different backgrounds, and that’s what I try to do.”
What are his ongoing influences?
“Everything influences me. This also sounds hippyish, but I learn resilience from trees, the importance of stillness from the flicker of a flame. People who enter and exit my life: from Jimmie Heath, the importance of maintaining your inner child; from Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, I’ve learned the importance of realizing that you’re a human being, first; I learned from Terence Blanchard that it’s OK for me to be myself.
“I just came back from Denmark, from being around all the best musicians in Denmark, teaching at a camp – their love for music was something that I’d forgot, or that I’ve been yearning for and I didn’t realize I was yearning for it. And I just felt like crying for a week, to see a culture where they were playing music just for the pleasure of playing music.
“I learned that from them.
“All of these things go into my music.”