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Ambrose Akinmusire: 'Music Can Tell You What It Wants To Be'

Ambrose Akinmusire's latest album is <em>the imagined savior is far easier to paint</em>.
Autumn DeWilde
Courtesy of the artist
Ambrose Akinmusire's latest album is the imagined savior is far easier to paint.

For a jazz trumpet player, you couldn't be more on top of the world than Ambrose Akinmusire. The 32-year-old is looking good on the cover of this month's DownBeat, and he's managed to please the jazz critics and connect with audiences. It goes without saying that Akinmusire can tear it up on the trumpet — but on his new album the imagined savior is far easier to paint, he often cedes the spotlight to other players, in particular the eclectic selection of guest singers he invited to join his own quintet in the studio.

Akinmusire spoke with NPR's Arun Rath about the unlikely influences — string quartets, documentary films, Joni Mitchell — that have molded him into one of the most talked-about names in contemporary jazz. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.

This album has a very different feeling from your last — not only different instrumentation, but there are styles that get kind of far away from jazz. Did you set out to do something totally different, or did it just come out this way?

It just came out this way. I didn't set out to do anything different. I don't really approach my craft and my music like that. I would hope that it would be different, because that other album was recorded four years ago, and I definitely have changed a lot in those four years.

There's a broad palette of sounds, though, that you're using, like adding a string quartet and a guitarist. What is it about a string quartet that you like? Who are your favorite composers when it comes to string quartets?

Oh man. I really love Ravel; there's not so many string quartets that he wrote, but I love his sense of melodic development, and I love his orchestration. But the thing that attracts me to the string quartet is the ability to sustain a note. It sounds really simple, but in a jazz quintet — you know, with trumpets, saxophone, bass, piano and drums — you can't really sustain a note for longer than maybe 30, 45 seconds. But with strings, you can have one note into infinity. You can kind of get this hovering bubble thing that you can't get in a jazz quintet.

"The Beauty of Dissolving Portraits" really manifests that. It's almost like an organ, holding those tones.

And that's hard to do in a jazz quintet, with those instruments. Everybody has to take a breath; there's decay in piano and drums and all this other stuff.

It would be be exhausting.

Or just impossible. The way I see it is that you kind of get to cheat time — like you can press "slow motion" all of the sudden.

It's also nice to hear the way your group plays along, like on "Inflatedbyspinning" — your bass player is kind of blending with the strings, but it's a different voice, a different feeling.

Yeah, that was kind of the point. He represents the rough part of the image I had for that tune. I had imagined it as these three woman wearing white, just kind of spinning on the edge of a cliff, and one of them is holding a red balloon. And so the bass represents the cliff, and the other string instruments represent the people that are spinning. And it builds and builds, and at the end, the balloon is inflated.

There's also some gorgeous flute in the string sections; how did that come about?

Over the last year or two, I've been thinking a lot about the beginning and end of something — like a full spectrum. And so, I'm really into having the flute play in the upper register, and having the bass at the bottom, or the end, of that spectrum. The same concept is represented in "Rollcall for Those Absent."

This is the track where you have a young girl, Muna Blake, reciting the names of these people who have died in various instances of police brutality or injustice.

She's at the beginning of her life, talking about the end of the other people's lives. It's the same sort of concept. I'm really fascinated by having these things right next to each other, as opposed to seeing the whole full spectrum –- to just kind of rub them together and see how that feels, and what's produced from that.

It's really haunting.

It is.

What did you tell her?

I didn't tell her anything.

You just gave her a list of names?

Yeah. I'm good friends with her mother, Rio Sakairi — who actually does the booking at The Jazz Gallery in New York. And her father is a great jazz drummer, Johnathan Blake.

That's how it's got that really real feel to it. She doesn't know how to say "Amadou Diallo."

I love that. Trayvon Martin, though, she's at least heard that name. I like it because a lot of the names, people are familiar with. You come in, and you're just kind of like, "What is this?" And then when you hear Trayvon Martin, in the middle of the piece, you say, "Oh, okay." And then I have her read the names again, now that we recognize what's really going on. I really like the part where you have Oscar Grant's name — you know, the unfortunate situation that took place a few years ago. You have that on top of Trayvon Martin, and it's sort of saying, "This is still happening. It's the same story, just a different time."

There are lots of these kinds of references all through your songs and albums, even the tracks without words in them. A lot of the songs have these parenthetical titles, and I want to ask about one of them: "Ceaseless Inexhaustible Child." The name in the parentheses for that one is Cyntoia Brown. First off, who is Cyntoia Brown?

Sometimes when I'm practicing, if I'm not feeling so inspired to do long tones, I'll watch a documentary while I'm doing them. I stumbled upon this one documentary called The 16 Year Old Killer. This girl just had a really, really crazy life: She was a prostitute, and long story short, she ended up killing one of her clients in bed. She thought he was reaching for a gun, and she grabbed the gun, and she killed him. She went to jail, and I think she's still there. The thing that really affected me was to see the transformation she went through — because at the beginning of the documentary she's 16, and by the end she's 21, 22, and she's just so hopeless. So, that's what that's about. It's a great documentary; I would recommend it to anybody.

The recording features singing by the Canadian artist Cold Specks. How did you prep her when you talked about this song with her?

I didn't, really, so much. I really believe that music can tell you what it wants to be or what it is, if you really can tap into it and submit to it. I sent her a recording I'd made of me playing the tune while I was watching the documentary, on silent. I didn't tell her any of this. I sent that to her, and she said, "OK, I get the vibe." Then the band went into the studio in New York and tracked it, and I sent that to her. And she said, "This is a little different, but it still has the same vibe." And then I went to Toronto to record with her — and she just hit it out of the park. I didn't even tell her the story. There was no title; I didn't tell her anything. It just happened to line up like that.

There are some great examples in jazz of vocalists singing with trumpet players, like Sarah Vaughan and Clifford Brown. But I think people may not realize how hard it is to play a trumpet with a singer, because of the kind of restraint you have to have. It's wild the way you play along underneath her here.

Yeah, it's not so hard for me because I'm totally influenced by female vocalists. My biggest influence right now, and has been for a long time, is Joni Mitchell. Joni Mitchell or Björk, or before them, maybe Sarah Vaughan. I'm really into the female voice. It's sort of in the same range as the trumpet. The same reason I'm into the cello; these are things that really move me.

I want to talk to you about Steve Coleman, a great saxophone player. Would you say that he discovered you?

Um, have I been discovered? What does that mean?

You've got a second album on Blue Note now, and a host of big critiques. I think you're out there.

I was talking about this the other day with someone. I'm still really young, but I'm old enough to have new chapters in my life, to have different chapters. So, I don't know if I can say, "That was it. That was the moment." Right now, it's just a chapter, and before that, it was a chapter. There's the chapter of being taken to jam sessions and to flea markets by the local musicians, and after that there was school, and after that there was the Monk Institute, and after that there were competitions. There were always chapters, and you meet different people along the way. For me, when you look back, everybody's really important, just in different ways.

What's kind of interesting for me, as a fan, is I feel like Steve Coleman has been like a finishing school for some of the young players who are coming up with amazing new sounds these days. What is it about him as a teacher?

The same thing that I find inspiring about Joni: He's just totally committed to the music. Everything he does is related to the music, getting better, trying to get as close to that mystical thing as possible while he's here on earth. It's amazing to go on tour with him, to see him push as hard as he pushes every night, no matter what. I met him when I was 17, and I mean, he had more energy than me when I was 17. And he's so, so into me, so excited, and he's been able to maintain that for so many years.

You're going to tour this music, and it's pretty complicated, especially with all the extra instrumentation. Are you going to preserve all these concepts on the road?

We're planning on doing a bigger band — we'll have [singer] Theo Bleckmann and Charles Altura, the guitar player — but my main focus is really the quintet. These guys are really close to me, and when I'm composing, these are the people I hear inside my head, so there's that side of it. Then there's just the budget side of it: It's pretty hard to tour a string quartet, a guitar, three vocalists and a jazz quintet. That's close to impossible.

I want to ask about one more song, "Our Basement," which has the name "Ed" in parentheses. Who is Ed?

Ed is this older gentleman that I see every single day. He lives on my block; he's a homeless guy. And when you first see him you're like, "OK, a homeless guy. Whatever." But I opened up a local paper one day and there was a big picture of Ed. And I was like, "OK, this is interesting. Let me read this." I learned he was in the war, and his wife died. But the interesting part is that he would go to this church that was across the street from my house every weekend, and they would feed him. And he would save money throughout the week, throughout the month, to pay them. There's something really inspiring about that.

That song is sung by Becca Stevens. Maybe it doesn't seem strange to you, but she isn't necessarily who I would associate with this character as you described him to me. But it works.

Well, I've known Becca for a long time. When I was at Manhattan School of Music, she was at The New School. And she's someone who everybody, in my generation at least, looks up to. She's really a genius — I don't like using that word too much, she really has tapped into something in a deep way. I just wanted to work with her, so before I even knew what I was going to do for this album, I wrote her and said, "Hey, Becca, can you write a tune for my next album?" And she said, "Sure, what do you want?" I said, "Can you just write it from the perspective of a homeless man?" And she said, "OK, great." And she produced this. And then I showed her the story later.

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