CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Ambrose Akinmusire: Blues for 2020

The trumpeter's creative path has led him through Muddy Waters and Messiaen, Björk and Lester Bowie. Now it’s taking him toward self-reliance.

Ambrose Akinmusire (photo: Ogata)
Ambrose Akinmusire (photo: Ogata)

Having moved back to his native Oakland in 2016, Ambrose Akinmusire found himself in a relatively ideal position to weather a quarantine. Speaking over the phone this summer during the height of the COVID pandemic, the trumpeter and composer described an urban oasis: fruit trees, a spice and vegetable garden, and a meditative respite from the cramped and hectic life he’d left behind in New York City. He’d already opted for a solitary lifestyle with his family before one was imposed on him.

“There’s something about living in the Bay Area that prepared me for this a little more than New York would have,” Akinmusire noted. “I’ve been trying to get to a point where I’m completely self-sufficient in everything I do—musically, but also as a human. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to slaughtering my animals, but I am growing my own food.”

Career-wise, that self-sufficiency entails taking ever greater control of how his music is presented. One of Akinmusire’s current passions is visual art. Although he insists his efforts have yet to reach a point where he’d be comfortable showing them to the public, he envisions a day when he’ll be able to create every aspect of his album packaging, from cover art to videos.

In all these endeavors, from food-growing to art-making, you can see two aspects of Akinmusire’s personality that have been strongly in evidence almost from the moment he emerged as the winner of the 2007 Thelonious Monk Competition: his fervid individuality and his voracious curiosity. He’s long expressed the desire to collaborate with artists outside of jazz and even beyond music. When we spoke for the first time nearly a decade ago, he rattled off a list of influences that spanned the musical spectrum (Wayne Shorter to Björk to Ravel) and into the experimental fringes of multiple disciplines (conceptual artist Marina Abramovic, choreographer Pina Bausch).

“I dig deep into stuff until it starts to push me away or until I have to reject it,” he said. “When I’m deep-diving I’m really deep-diving. I’m pulling out discographies, trying to link up albums with interviews and what was happening socially. Why do these notes sound like this? It’s just the same 12 notes, but I really do think the environment shapes them. We all know that, but I want to get closer to it, even if it’s just one step closer.”

Recent obsessions include composer Olivier Messiaen and the solo work of saxophonist Steve Lacy, as well as the florid naturalism of portrait painter Kehinde Wiley. The latter was a major influence on Akinmusire’s audacious 2018 album Origami Harvest, a startling sensory overload of incisive jazz, intricate chamber music, and bold hip-hop influences. “Wiley’s pieces have these beautiful, crazy tapestries with the subject matter in direct contrast on top of them,” he described. “I imagine that those subjects were literally dancing around in the frame. So I wanted to create a sonic palette with a frame around it that allowed [rapper] Kool A.D. to do whatever he wanted to do.”

As many of us have come to realize in recent years through overdoses of cable news and social media, too much hyper-focused obsession can lead to ill effects, and Akinmusire’s deep dives can lead to the same outcome, he admitted. “Just like anything, if you have too much it starts to feel weird inside of you. It becomes poison. But I just eat as much as I can until have to get it out.”

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.