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Before & After with Ambrose Akinmusire

At 30, a lifetime of knowledge

Ambrose Akinmusire and Ashley Kahn at Umbria Jazz Festival, July 2012

At medieval chamber built from stone and located a hundred feet or so below street level may not seem like the ideal place to discuss jazz recordings in front of an audience. But Umbria Jazz, one of Europe’s leading summer festivals, has never been shy about repurposing the historic sites of Perugia, Italy. On a mid-festival afternoon, while the midday sun blazed overhead, about 40 jazz enthusiasts took an escalator down to the cool, lower level of the Rocca Paolina-a fortress erected on Papal order in 1540 with an incredible, bloody story all its own-to hear Ambrose Akinmusire participate in his first Before & After. In many ways, the exercise seemed tailor-made for him. “If I hadn’t played an instrument I would be a music nerd,” the trumpeter confessed while noshing on organic Umbrian food at the public reception held after.

No kidding. Akinmusire correctly identified 10 out of 11 tracks, most within a few seconds. His ear for pianists is particularly impressive, and his commentary revealed the respectable extent of experiences that the 30-year-old has already accrued. Later that evening in Perugia’s Teatro Morlacchi, Akinmusire headlined a well-attended midnight concert with his current quintet: saxophonist Walter Smith III, pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Justin Brown.

1. Lee Morgan

“All the Way” (from Candy, Blue Note). Lee Morgan, trumpet; Sonny Clark, piano; Doug Watkins, bass; Art Taylor, drums. Recorded in 1958.

BEFORE: I know that’s Sonny Clark on piano. I went through a huuuge Sonny Clark phase. I’ve always loved his voicings, and his sense of time is amazing. I imagine he sounds like what Monk would have sounded like if Monk wasn’t as adventurous as he was. Right now I’m in a Bud Powell phase. Originally I thought it was a Sonny Clark date, but I think that’s a Lee Morgan record and the song is “All the Way.”

Lee Morgan was the first trumpet player that I really, really gravitated toward. I had never heard that amount of passion coming out of the trumpet. What first got me was the break he takes in his version of “A Night in Tunisia.” I played that record over and over. The next record I got was [Art Blakey’s] Moanin‘, and the CD version had alternate takes. And on every take he was still playing with that same amount of passion. I never really heard a trumpet player putting himself out there like that.

Morgan was only 19 when he recorded the tracks for Candy, unusually young to step out as a leader.

I think everybody has their own individual time. When I had certain opportunities presented to me at a younger age, I knew I wasn’t ready.

2. The Brian Lynch/Eddie

Palmieri Project

“Freehands” (from Simpático, ArtistShare). Brian Lynch, trumpet; Donald Harrison, alto saxophone; Edsel Gomez, piano; Luques Curtis, bass; Robby Ameen, drums; Giovanni Hidalgo, congas; Pedro Martinez, bongos, campaña. Recorded in 2006.

BEFORE: Right off the bat, I thought it was something I had played on. Then I thought it was Roy Hargrove, but once the solo started I realized it wasn’t him. I have no idea who that was.

AFTER: I met Brian when I was 16 years old at the Stanford Jazz Workshop. He helped me out when I was a little bit younger. He’s definitely one of the students of the music. I have the majority of his records but I never really sat down and checked him out. And I have this album. This one won a Grammy, right? [Ed. note: It did, in 2007 for Best Latin Jazz Album.]

3. Roy Hargrove

“Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat” (from Disney Jazz Volume 1: Everybody Wants to Be a Cat, Disney). Roy Hargrove, trumpet; Justin Robinson, alto saxophone; Gerald Clayton, piano; Ameen Saleem, bass; Thaddeus Dixon, drums. Recorded in 2009.

BEFORE: [immediately] Is that Gerald on piano? That’s Roy and Justin Robinson and Ameen Saleem. I don’t recognize the tune but let it play.

AFTER: What gave it away was Gerald Clayton. I’ve played with him for many years, and I’m really sensitive to chords. So usually if I have heard someone play or if I’ve played with them, I know who they are after two chords. Gerald particularly has a very, very specific touch.

I think any young trumpet player today has been influenced by Roy. In my case, he’s also someone who would help me out when he came through Oakland. I would go to his hotel and get lessons, things like that. I like to call him the sleeping lion: If you end up on the stage with him and you back him into a corner, you just have to barrel down and get ready for the ridiculousness that’s going to come back because he’s so unpredictable and so strong.

Actually, I can credit him as the first trumpet player who made me want to be a jazz musician, to do it as a career. At the 2000 Monterey Jazz Festival, [drummer] Justin [Brown] and I were there and Roy was the artist-in-residence and he did a clinic. I’ll never forget it. He just walked onstage with his band, in some leather pants and a wife beater. He didn’t say a word; he just gave a downbeat and for an hour straight they played the most soulful, intense music I had ever heard.

Justin and I have a bootleg and we argue about who recorded it to this day. You can hear one of us on there, screaming. It was amazing. It was crazy. I can remember every tune he played that night, like “Nature Boy.” He played two or three ballads in a row and that’s a hard feat, you know, to do that without people getting impatient.

Interesting that you will be this year’s artist-in-residence at Monterey. What will you be doing?

I had to be a judge for their high school band competition, and a couple of weeks ago I took part in their summer camp. In September I’ll be playing four times at the festival: with my quintet, as a guest with the all-star big band, with the high school all-star big band and then also with the Monterey Jazz Festival touring band that includes Chris Potter, Lewis Nash, Christian McBride and Benny Green.

4. Paolo Fresu & Omar Sosa

“Old D Blues” (from Alma, OTA). Paolo Fresu, trumpet; Omar Sosa, piano. Recorded in 2012.

BEFORE: It sounds like someone I heard last night. He’s a great trumpet player. I think that’s Paolo Fresu.

AFTER: Ohhh! I used to play with Omar Sosa in Oakland. That’s crazy. It doesn’t sound like what I remember him sounding like. I mean, that was 14 years ago, but I really like this track. Paolo I heard at a festival two years ago; I think it was Marseilles, and he was playing something similar to this. He wasn’t playing mute on the festival, but I do remember I really liked his attack; it’s really, really clean and he’s really, really patient. That’s why I knew that it was him. As for Italian trumpet players, I don’t think I know enough about Italian jazz musicians in general to say what they sound like or really to even begin to make a comparison with American players. But I would imagine that one can’t necessarily distinguish an Italian sound from an American approach.

5. Miles Davis Quintet

“On Green Dolphin Street” (from Live in Europe 1967, Sony Legacy). Miles Davis, trumpet; Wayne Shorter, tenor saxophone; Herbie Hancock, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Tony Williams, drums. Recorded in 1967.

BEFORE: [immediately] 1967! [laughs] Miles Davis, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock. [A journalist in the audience points out that this is the first time he’s witnessed a musician identify a track simply by the sound of the applause at the start.] But there was a chord in there. Yeah, you gotta play me something without a piano.

AFTER: This particular group is amazing. To me it always sounds like modern Dixieland music, in the way that everybody is contributing 100 percent. No one is just playing a role. It’s not like Miles is soloing and everybody else is sitting back. Everybody is active at the same time. This is how each player in a group can maintain their own individual identity and contribute to a group sound at the same time. I think that you can hear this in my quintet right now. I think everyone in the band has been influenced by this particular period of Miles.

I don’t necessarily recognize Miles’ shadow in my own playing, but I think that in terms of his artistry he is what every musician should aspire to be. Miles recreated himself every 10 to 12 years, and I think it’s so important to reevaluate the things that you believe. That’s his primary influence with me. I think those shadows exist when you try to copy what players like Miles did, but that’s not really what I’m out here trying to do. In general I don’t feel pressure from anything that was created before me, and I probably won’t feel pressure from anything that will be created after me. So I’m good.

I recall you recently toured in the lead role, so to speak, of the tribute show The Miles Davis Experience, covering music from The Birth of the Cool to Kind of Blue.

I did that for a reason that’s not really related to me loving Miles Davis and his group.

6. Henry “Red” Allen and His


“Biff’ly Blues” (from The Chronological Henry “Red” Allen and His Orchestra: 1929-1933, Classics). Henry “Red” Allen, trumpet; J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Albert Nicholas, clarinet; Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Teddy Hill, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Will Johnson, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums/vibraphone. Recorded in 1929.

BEFORE: Wow, that’s pretty amazing. This one’s a little tricky for me. I think I know. Henry “Red” Allen?

AFTER: There was this video called Trumpet Kings that I watched every day during my sophomore year in high school. Wynton Marsalis is the host, and he goes through the history of trumpet. On it, Henry “Red” Allen picks up the horn after singing a blues and he plays a couple choruses, doing all of these extended techniques on the trumpet. He was doing all these glissandos and playing these wide intervals. He sounded like a modern Louis Armstrong to me. Trumpet is a really difficult instrument to begin with, and for someone to growl above a G on the staff is extremely hard.

Allen solos like an old blues singer as opposed to a jazz singer or somebody like Louis Armstrong. And when he sings, he sounds like one of the down-home blues singers.

Every weekend I would go to the flea market in Berkeley and I would find records. I think my allowance was maybe $10 or $15 a week, so I would try to get the cheaper records. I was hugely into Allen and Jonah Jones and actually, quite randomly, Al Hirt. Those were the cheaper records.

7. Steve Lacy With Don Cherry

“Evidence” (from Evidence, Prestige). Steve Lacy, soprano saxophone; Don Cherry, trumpet; Carl Brown, bass; Billy Higgins, drums. Recorded in 1961.

BEFORE: Steve Lacy, Don Cherry. Is that Ed Blackwell? No, Billy Higgins. Is that “Evidence”?

AFTER: When I was 16 or 17, I played a couple of gigs with Billy Higgins. For some reason I thought it was Blackwell at first. Also, I used to play with Peter Apfelbaum when I was in high school, and he had played with Don Cherry. Peter’s a multi-instrumentalist, plays mainly saxophone and is an amazing composer. He went to Berkeley High School, the same high school as Justin and myself. He would actually hire the two of us for local gigs and eventually to go on tours with him.

Anyway, Peter gave me these bootlegs of Don Cherry. I really believe that besides Woody Shaw and Charles Tolliver, Don’s the only trumpet player who really investigated wider intervals, playing stuff above an octave. Trumpet players don’t usually play anything above a fourth, even Freddie [Hubbard]. But Don Cherry is all over the horn, not really caring about if it was going to come out. It was more about this reckless abandon approach to trumpet, and that’s something that really, really influenced me.

Don is one of the unsung heroes of trumpet, and he was one of the best-dressed trumpet players, too. He always had on a great outfit.

8. Enrico Rava

“Thriller” (from Rava on the Dance Floor, ECM). Enrico Rava, Andrea Tofanelli, Claudio Corvini, trumpets; Mauro Ottolini, trombone; Daniele Tittarelli, alto saxophone; Dan Kinzelman, tenor saxophone; Franz Bazzani, keyboard; Giovanni Guidi, piano; Dario Deidda, bass; Marcello Giannini, electric guitar; Zeno de Rossi, drums; Ernesto Lopez Maturelli, percussion. Recorded in 2012.

BEFORE: This sounds like the beginning of “Thriller” [laughs]. It is! You’re joking. I know who this is: Enrico Rava.

AFTER: I’ve never heard this record but I recognize his tone. Yeah, just the tone. [Later on I recognized] the phrasing, but I knew it was Rava before I heard him solo. Rava is a bad dude. He’s always been pushing. Even on his stuff in the ’70s and ’80s, he always sounds like he’s not really concerned with what’s going on right now, he’s concerned about where he’s going and how he is going to develop in the future. He’s still curious, and that’s something I find really inspiring in people like him and Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Heath, Benny Golson-older musicians who are still investigating, trying to figure out what the next step is. I think that’s really important and definitely a lesson. Plus they all look really young, so maybe that’s the reason why.

9. The Funk Brothers

“Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone (Instrumental)” (B-side of the Temptations single “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” Gordy). Maurice D. Davis, trumpet; Melvin “Wah-Wah Watson” Ragin, Robert White, Joe Messina, Eddie Willis, guitars; Earl Van Dyke, piano; Johnny Griffith, organ; James Jamerson, bass; Uriel Jones, Richard “Pistol” Allen, Andrew Smith, drums; Eddie “Bongo” Brown, Jack Ashford, Jack Brokenshaw, percussion; various other string players. Recorded in 1972.

BEFORE: “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” from the early ’70s. The Funk Brothers. James Jamerson-he’s one of my favorite funk bass players, him and Pino Palladino. I’m trying to think who the trumpet player was. I keep wanting to say Maurice Brown.

AFTER: Maurice Davis. The thing is that there are so many great players out there who are known only through a recording or two, and that’s such a famous trumpet line.

In fact, one of the reasons I wanted to play this track is that it’s a great example of a famous trumpet part played by a totally unknown musician. Before you went in a focused jazz direction, you were somewhat anonymous as well, playing R&B parts in Macy Gray’s band.

Wow. How did you know that? Players like Maurice Davis have also influenced me, not necessarily because they’re R&B or jazz players but as trumpet players in general. Because trumpet, as I said, is a hard instrument, and it’s something that you have to practice every day. So for someone to get up and practice and not get any money or fame or even any credit, it really teaches me that music is really the priority a bit more important than making money and having a lustrous career. That dedication never changes.

There’s a story that’s related to this, and to Motown. Two years ago, I did a gig in Detroit and Marcus Belgrave came out and I ended up staying at his house. I went to bed at maybe 11 p.m. He had invited people over and they were up partying until 1 or 2 in the morning. When I woke up, Marcus was practicing, doing his long tones. I mean, this is a grown man, already well along in his career, but here he was, up before me and practicing.

[Ed. note: This Before & After took place on July 13, 2012; Maurice D. Davis passed away that same day in Detroit. Besides contributing trumpet to more than 1,500 recordings and playing in the bands of Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Whitney Houston and others, he taught music and was an ordained minister who founded the Trumpeting High Praises Community Resources Center in Detroit in 1998.]

10. Hugh Masekela

“U Dwi” (from The Americanization of Ooga Booga, MGM). Hugh Masekela, trumpet; Morris Goldberg, saxophone; Eric Gale, guitar; Larry Willis, piano; uncredited: bass, drums. Recorded in 1966.

BEFORE: [upon hearing the piano introduction] Hugh Masekela!

AFTER: He’s so soulful, definitely soulful. When I listen to him, it’s like that Ornette Coleman thing: You can tell that to him the expression and the emotions are more important than the actual notes he’s playing. I’ve checked out a lot of Hugh Masekela, for two reasons. One was that when I was in high school, me and a friend would go to Amoeba Music every day and dig in the bins for the $2 and $3 records, and this particular record was always in the bin. Also, I used to play with Goapele, a great R&B singer in the Bay Area. Her father is from South Africa, and she used to always try to get me to play Hugh Masekela licks.

I remember in Oakland they had a jazz festival run by one of my mentors, [trumpeter and educator] Khalil Shaheed. They brought Hugh Masekela out around 2005, and that was the first and only time I’ve heard him play live. Actually, wait a minute. He was one of the judges for the Monk competition when I won in 2007! So I know he’s heard me, too [laughs].

11. Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy

“When the Spirit Returns” (from I Only Have Eyes for You, ECM). Lester Bowie, Stanton Davis Jr., Bruce Purse, Malachi Thompson, trumpets; Vincent Chancey, French horn; Craig Harris, Steve Turre, trombones; Bob Stewart, bass; Phillip Wilson, drums. Recorded in 1985.

BEFORE: Lester Bowie with his Brass Fantasy group.

AFTER: It’s interesting, because I had this record when I was in high school and since then I’ve played with a few of these players, like Bob Stewart, Vincent Chancey and Steve Turre, but I didn’t really draw the connection. So to hear them now, it’s kind of weird that I now know so many of them.

Lester was in the first jazz show I ever saw-the Art Ensemble of Chicago. I remember I went to Yoshi’s and they got onstage and then faced east for about 10 minutes. Just stood there for 10 minutes straight. The audience was completely silent and this amazing energy was created. I was in eighth grade then, so I must have been 13 or something like that. I probably wasn’t able to sit still, but I remember Lester Bowie was amazing. He had such a beautiful sound and was one of the players of the avant-garde school who could play anything-bebop, free. And he chose to do it his way.

There’s also something in his playing that I think I got from him, this idea of playing through different dimensions. Sometimes when you’re performing there is this wall that comes between you and the audience, unfortunately, and it’s really fun to punch through it. Lester Bowie did that. He’d be playing and then all of a sudden it’ll be like, “Aha!” That’s something I try to do, just to break through and bring the audience in.

Originally Published