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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: Ogata)
Ambrose Akinmusire (photo: Ogata)

One path that the blues has taken in more recent times led to Akinmusire’s first live experience of jazz, an Art Ensemble of Chicago show at the venerable Oakland club Yoshi’s during his eighth-grade year. So much about the Art Ensemble’s radical vision of jazz—the all-encompassing collage of styles, the mashup of traditional and progressive, the theatricality—seems in retrospect to have had a lasting influence on the trumpeter’s expansive definition of the music. He pays tribute to AEC founder Roscoe Mitchell with “Mr. Roscoe (Consider the Simultaneous)” on Tender Spot. But there was also Lester Bowie and his gut-punch sound, which Akinmusire can still conjure vividly from memory.

“I can’t name a more blues-playing trumpet player than Lester Bowie,” he said. “Maybe Lee Morgan, but Lester plays the blues, man, for real. The screams, the hollers, the grunts. When you’re a kid, you create your own norms. So that became my norm.”

The trumpeter has been reimagining the blues in even more explicit form via his project Mae//Mae, a tribute to 1930s singer Mattie Mae Thomas, who was recorded while imprisoned at Mississippi’s infamous Parchman Farm penitentiary. With the quartet, the blues seems to emerge as an intensity of self-revelatory emotion, a way of existing against a backdrop of wrongs and injustices without being swallowed by them—much as Kehinde Wiley’s subjects remain vividly themselves even as a tapestry of flora threatens to engulf them.

Akinmusire’s quartet has taken that idea on as an identity, never as movingly revealed as on this album. They were last captured on 2017’s A Rift in Decorum, a two-disc set recorded live at the Village Vanguard. Where that album was more viscerally immediate, this studio outing finds them venturing into an almost mournful urgency, melding the confessional and the outspoken with a brittle but piercing strength.

“Ambrose’s music is virtuosic and complex, but it’s very broken in a fragile place,” said vocalist Theo Bleckmann, who has collaborated sporadically with the trumpeter since 2014’s The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint. “It has extreme beauty and is very lyrical, but it’s also extremely vulnerable.”

Not that the quartet discussed such ideas prior to recording. After so long together, their shared conceptions have become implicit in Akinmusire’s compositions, which leave ample space for each individual to contribute, though the end product emerges as a strikingly cohesive statement—in this case, an almost cubist depiction of the blues.

“We don’t often put what happens onstage into words in this group,” Raghavan said. “I’m not as eloquent a speaker as Ambrose; I don’t have the skills to describe it, but I think the blues is something that’s always in the back of our minds. It’s just a part of how we play—a fundamental part. It’s also something that never gets old to listen to: anyone playing their iteration of the blues.”

“We’ve come to the point where how we play music and how we live our lives has become indistinguishable.” —Harish Raghavan

Akinmusire’s albums are always conceptual, he allowed, but often not in ways that can be expressed outright (or that he’d care to). “I can feel the aesthetic in other ways,” he said, “more tactile and sense-related ways. It’s not something I can explain right now in words, but I can usually grab at it, feel it and taste it and sit inside of it. This one felt prickly and urgent, and also beautiful. I used to write these little manifestos when I was younger, and the one word that was always in them was ‘beauty.’ I really do believe that art should have beauty in it, even if it’s ugly beauty, or used to highlight the ugliness of something.”

The beauty of On the Tender Spot arises amidst a country riven by divisive social politics, as well as a period of personal loss for the composer. “Roy” proceeds, dirge-like, to lament and celebrate—flaws, excesses, genius, and all—the complicated life and indelible influence of Roy Hargrove. The agitated lyricism of “Moon (The Return Amplifies the Unity)” or the shadowy unease of “Yessss” find beauty both in a contrast with darker thoughts and in the hope that allows one to face them.

“In these darker moods, [the beauty comes from] resilience,” Akinmusire said. “It’s the lack of fear that allows you to express it and the resilience that allows you to walk towards a resolution. I think that all relates to what it means to be black. I hate telling people what the album is about, but everything I just said could be why I consider this a blues record.”

To close the album, Akinmusire sits alone at the Fender Rhodes for “Hooded Procession (Read the Names Outloud),” tolling bell-like sounds in elegiac memory of Black victims of police brutality. The piece continues a tradition begun with “Rollcall for Those Absent” on Imagined Savior, in which a litany of names, concluding with Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant, is recited by the voice of a child. The list has only continued to grow since, of course, and frustration about that has finally boiled over in the widespread protests following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Akinmusire’s decision to render his follow-ups to “Rollcall” as instrumental pieces is a distressing indication that any roster he records is sure to be outdated by the time it reaches listeners’ ears.

“I did a tour maybe five years ago with Theo Bleckmann, and we opened the shows with ‘Rollcall for Those Absent,’” Akinmusire recalled. “Theo did a bunch of research and started adding names to the list. He was like, ‘Man, this could be the whole gig.’ It was a joke, but also not. And we’re just talking about the last 10 years, not 100 or 400 years. It’s crazy. We’ve been protesting these three people for two months, but I could name another 10 that have been killed in that span of time.”

“Ambrose recorded that six years ago, and it’s only now that we’re beginning to see how far ahead that kind of thinking was,” Bleckmann said. “Now it’s more urgent than ever; it’s more urgent that a white person speaks those names, remembers those names, holds those murdered innocent people up, and I think that is something I was able to contribute. But at that time this movement was just brewing, and I’m sure that his aesthetic and acknowledgment is a ripple in the big ocean that has added to it. For Ambrose to say that we have to look at this, we have to deal with this, we have to sing about it, we have to make music about it, was ahead of its time.”

Akinmusire might respectfully disagree with that assessment. In his view, the issues that he addresses through Tender Spot are hardly new to those who live with them on a daily basis. “The current climate isn’t so different from any of the other climates that I’ve released albums in,” he said, with more than a tinge of indignant regret.

“My awareness of what’s going on out here has not changed. I’ve always understood the power and the value of yelling about my experiences as an African-American man in America from my platform. I’ve always felt the need and the want and the responsibility to do that. This climate isn’t new for most of black America, especially black artists and especially black men, the people who are actually being hunted. So it doesn’t feel so much different, but I think it’s beautiful that other people are finally joining in.”

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.