Ambrose Akinmusire’s Pure Pursuit Of Sound

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On his new album, Ambrose Akinmusire includes original compositions that pay tribute to Roscoe Mitchell and Roy Hargrove.

(Photo: Ogata)

Hearing Ambrose Akinmusire perform brings to mind Louis Armstrong’s description of first hearing cornetist Bix Beiderbecke: “Those pretty notes went right through me.”

Akinmusire’s trumpet style sounds nothing like Beiderbecke’s, but his music does share a penetrating quality with that of the early jazz icon. Confident, technically brilliant and often bravura, his playing exudes an exquisite tenderness.

“It’s pure,” said Justin Brown, the trumpeter’s lifelong friend and longtime drummer. “I don’t think he ever wants to settle. There’s some knowledge that he still wants to gain, and he’s so pure in that pursuit. That’s what I get when I hear Ambrose.”

It’s an opportune time to hear that purity. Akinmusire’s sixth album, On The Tender Spot Of Every Calloused Moment (Blue Note), finds him stepping back from the ambitious sonic tapestries of previous recordings. While the program features two (low-key) guest vocalists, there are no string quartets, no auxiliary instruments: just the trumpeter’s quartet—with Brown, pianist Sam Harris and bassist Harish Raghavan—in an unadorned setting, at once intimate and direct.

“This is my shortest album so far,” Akinmusire said from his home in Oakland, California. He explained that downscaling the instrumentation and length of the program might have broadened his expressive palette: “On my other albums, I was dealing with extremes a lot, at either end of the spectrum; on this one, you can feel the middles of things a little bit more.”

Asked about the arc of those developments, however, Akinmusire demurred. “I can sort of talk about it, but I feel like I’m grasping at something I’m not supposed to be grasping at,” he said. “About a year before he passed away, I took the opportunity to ask [vibraphonist] Bobby Hutcherson for advice. He said, ‘Never, ever analyze what you’ve done. Then when you get to be my age, you’ll have nothing but time, and then you’ll look back and you’ll say, Oh! That’s what I was doing, that’s what I was thinking.’ That’s something that really stuck with me.”

Akinmusire, 38, recently has spent a lot of time thinking about the elders who have influenced him. The new album contains direct tributes to two of his heroes. “Mr. Roscoe (Consider The Simultaneous),” with its evocative, tumbling dissonance, is an homage to multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell, and “Roy” is a beautiful elegy for the late trumpeter Roy Hargrove (1969–2018).

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