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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: Alan Nahigian)
Ambrose Akinmusire at the 2020 Winter Jazzfest in New York (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Akinmusire’s visual sense is meaningfully showcased by the cover of his latest album, On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment. The image echoes the photo that graced the cover of his 2011 Blue Note debut, When the Heart Emerges Glistening: face-on, eyes closed, cryptic expression. But it’s the differences that stand out most poignantly. Where the original shows him with close-cropped hair, clean-shaven, clad in a suit with abstract colors exploding around him, four albums later he appears in stark, high-contrast black and white, sporting a tangle of locks and facial hair and wearing a hoodie.

“We know what the hoodie represents now in American culture,” he said bluntly. “We know what locks represent. It’s the image of me changing; it’s a cycle that I wanted to document. Coming back to Oakland made me hyper-aware of how when we return to something it’s never the same. Time has a way of changing things. It’s beautiful to return to something from a different angle and extract a little more juice.”

As much as Akinmusire has changed since leaving Oakland nearly 20 years ago, the city has changed even more drastically. Gentrification and an accompanying spike in real-estate prices have literally changed the complexion of the place that he once again calls home. “The tech industry has pushed all of the black people out,” he explained. “It’s great to be around family and around musicians that I’ve known since I was in my teenage years, but there are some things here that have redefined what I consider home. I really believe Oakland is a sacred place, and to have things that may or may not be considered sacred on those grounds is a little weird for me.”

The album comes full circle in another way, returning to Akinmusire’s longstanding quartet after the baroque eclecticism of Origami Harvest. The contrast was absolutely intentional, offering what Akinmusire describes as “a fastball straight down the middle.” The group—pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Justin Brown—has been playing tirelessly for nearly a decade, though most of the individual relationships within it stretch back even further. Akinmusire and Brown were high-school classmates, while Raghavan entered the picture when the trumpeter arrived at USC to attend the Monk Institute.

“We’ve come to the point where how we play music and how we live our lives has become indistinguishable,” Raghavan said. “It’s been one of the most gratifying musical experiences of my career to be in this group where not only are you inspired but you’re pushed to grow musically. Everybody’s also changing as a human being, and the music keeps progressing in the same sense. Musically and in other ways, it’s inspiring to be around Ambrose.”

Typically of Akinmusire, the new album’s poetic title and deceptively simple artwork combine to hint at profound truths that become deeply felt more than explicitly asserted. His portrait is at once confrontational and serene, haunted and powerful. The phrase on the tender spot of every calloused moment suggests the barrage of injustice upon injustice, wounds inflicted on bodies long since inured to the pain but still, always, vulnerable to the accumulated effects.

The album opens with “Tide of Hyacinth,” beginning with Akinmusire’s trumpet alone, tentatively probing, assertive but hesitant, cautious of the dangers. He becomes emboldened by the entrance of the band’s turbulent rumble, which throughout the piece gathers force only to shatter repeatedly into jagged, tumbling shards. Five minutes in, Cuban percussionist Jesús Díaz enters, chanting in Yoruba to transport the abstract modernism into a heightened, ritualistic space.

Akinmusire met the percussionist during his first tour with saxophonist Steve Coleman, when the trumpeter was just 19. Their recent reconnection came seemingly by chance—though Akinmusire seems loath to shrug off such happenstance—when the two ran into one another at an Oakland Whole Foods. “I listen to life, man,” Akinmusire insisted. “I don’t believe in coincidences. Every time [the quartet] would play ‘Tide of Hyacinth’ live I would hear this voice coming in and think, ‘What the fuck is that?’ It was in a language, but I didn’t know what it was. I sent it to Jesús and he sang in Yoruba, and it was freaky how much it resembled what I had been hearing in my head. Maybe I was hearing my dad singing—though I’ve never heard my dad sing.”

Akinmusire’s father hails from Lagos, Nigeria, his mother from the Mississippi Delta. Add in his Oakland upbringing, and Akinmusire’s own roots seem to trace a certain history of American music and its troubling links to the forced migration and oppression of African Americans. Throughout On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment, he grapples with the very idea of the blues, from the soul-revealing sparseness of “Reset (Quiet Victories & Celebrated Defeats)” to the steely, ominous undercurrents of “Blues (We Measure the Heart with a Fist).”

“I know what the blues means because it’s my existence,” he explained. “But what are the sounds of that now? When people in America—people all over the world, I imagine—think ‘blues,’ they think Muddy Waters, they think B.B. King. But that was just for that period, just like bebop was just for its period. There’s been movement since then.”

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.