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Ambrose: Akinmusire: The Storyteller

Trumpeter combines a unique narrative approach to composing with the deep kinship of his working band.

Ambrose Akinmusire
Ambrose Akinmusire
Ambrose Akinmusire

Ambrose Akinmusire is staking his claim as the next important voice on the jazz trumpet with When the Heart Emerges Glistening, only his second album as a leader and his first for Blue Note Records. The young horn man, who turns 29 on May Day, doesn’t stake that claim in the usual way: by playing faster, harder and/or weirder than the competition. Sure, Akinmusire (pronounced ah-kin-MOO-sir-ee) has chops-just listen to those vertiginous glissandos and that glowing French-horn-like tone. But he submerges his technique in a greater goal: creating powerful moods, then shattering them and then replacing them with different colors until an emotional narrative emerges.

Listen, for example, to one of the album’s key tracks, “Tear Stained Suicide Manifesto.” It opens with plaintive trumpet, a statement of world-weary survival reinforced by Akinmusire’s sighing tone and bent notes. After a minute of that, Walter Smith III’s tenor sax interrupts with a rising cry, throwing the piece out of its introspection and into a state of shock, which is reflected by the fractured piano solo from Akinmusire’s co-producer, Jason Moran. Slowly but surely, Moran knits the fragments of his solo into new, more decisive music, which is then visited by the two horns’ eerie, high harmonies. A crisis is reached and resolved; the trumpet returns to its warm-toned balladry, this time with a more optimistic feel reinforced by Justin Brown’s rattling wood percussion.

It’s as if the tune tells a whole story in less than five minutes. Questioned about the piece’s unusual title, Akinmusire admits that he actually wrote the title-and the story that went with it-before he wrote any of the music. He had just finished the soundcheck for a gig at Joe’s Pub in Lower Manhattan and decided that, rather than going home, he’d just hang out backstage for the four hours until showtime. He pulled out his always nearby notebook and wrote down, “Tear Stained Suicide Manifesto.” Soon the whole story started coming to him in a rush, and he had the whole thing written before he had to go onstage. “In the story,” Akinmusire explains, “a guy is walking home from work when he gets a phone call from the police that his wife and daughter have been murdered. He goes home and decides he has nothing left to live for. He’s going to kill himself, but while he’s writing his suicide note, the ghosts of his wife and daughter appear. They say, ‘You can kill yourself, but only if you can hang yourself upside down above the suicide note, read it, think about it and not shed a tear on the note. If you can do that, then it’s OK.’ But of course he can’t.

“When I got home, I keep reading this story over and over, trying to get a handle on the mood of it, on how I was feeling as I read it. I tried to create a sound that reflected that mood and the changes from emotion to emotion. In the beginning he’s tired, then he’s shocked, then he’s despairing, then he has an epiphany, and then he’s optimistic. The piece starts with him walking down the street, tired but neutral; that’s my trumpet intro. Then there’s a loud crescendo when he gets the news; that’s Walter’s part. Then, when Jason plays the solo, that’s him recovering from the shock, making the decision and writing the manifesto. The horns come in when the ghosts visit and he’s hanging upside down-then the tear comes at the end of Jason’s solo. The trumpet and percussion coda, when it shifts key into more of a major feel, is him deciding to live the rest of his life.”

Not only did Akinmusire not include this story in the liner notes-he didn’t even share it with his fellow musicians before the recording session. While this story-writing process is essential to his compositions, he doesn’t want to prejudice his audience’s interpretation or even his bandmates’ interpretation by giving them more than the title. (Why he was willing, then, to share the story with a major jazz magazine was a question I wasn’t going to ask while he was in a confessional mood.)

When I interviewed Moran the next day, I asked if he had heard the story behind “Tear Stained Suicide Manifesto.” The pianist said he had only been told the title and the explanation that Akinmusire “wrote this in a dark place in my life. It’s very dark … but in the end, it actually comes out OK.” Moran immediately demanded to hear the whole story, and after I’d recounted it, he just said, “Hmmm.”

In a sense, Akinmusire is right: What the story is about is not as important as the fact that there is a story, that the music moves through a narrative of conflict, confession and resolution. This approach has liberated his music from the stale format of head-solo-solo-solo-head. Instead his compositions contain multiple themes, each as independent as a character in a story, and they develop as fictional characters might, through problems and reactions. This strategy is employed throughout When the Heart Emerges Glistening, and it yields a fresh sound. “Most of my compositions are done this way now,” Akinmusire admits. “When I was younger, I could write a tune from divine inspiration. I don’t know how I did it. Now, I need overstimulation; I need to think of stories. But I like to do it that way, because it gives an unusual shape to the compositions. Plus, because it’s a narrative, people can relate to it more easily. Most people don’t say, ‘Hey, did you hear how he played a tri-tone substitution, then they went into 7 and now they’re in 5?’ No, that’s for musicians. The average listener is attuned to emotion, and he or she gets that from this approach, even without words. Sometimes I’ll watch a French film on DVD and turn the subtitles off to see if I can track the emotions without knowing the language. That’s what’s happening in my music.”

This narrative approach also dictated that the album would be made with the trumpeter’s working band. In the past it wasn’t uncommon for a young bandleader to make his or her early major-label recordings using A-list personnel. When Wynton Marsalis debuted on Columbia in 1981, he was joined by Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Art Blakey and Tony Williams. When Joshua Redman made his second album for Warner Bros. in 1993, he was joined by Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins. But guest stars of that caliber are expensive and too busy to attend the rehearsals required to master music as complicated as Akinmusire’s recent writing-so there was no choice but to use his regular combo. Even Moran takes only one piano solo and appears on only one other track, adding some electric-piano flavoring behind Gerald Clayton’s acoustic piano on “Henya.”

Other than those two exceptions the Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet plays everything. Because they’re so comfortable with one another, the boundary between soloist and accompanist is very porous; a soloist can suddenly find himself challenged by an improvised counter-statement from anyone in the band. The structure, after all, is determined not by an order of solos but by the emotional arc of Akinmusire’s story. “Why do I have to wait until after the head to solo?” he asks. “Why can’t I begin with a solo? Why do I have to solo at all? For a long time, I’ve been trying to break through the forms. That’s why I surround myself with musicians who are also willing to break down forms. When we play these tunes live this year, they won’t sound like they do on the album. Anything I create is something to be manipulated and explored, and I trust the musicians to do whatever they feel. Even if I go, ‘Damn, why did they do that?’ I still trust them. Sometimes you might be in the middle of the solo and someone else will come in and that will be OK. Anything goes. And I mean anything.”

“Why should you record your first record with stars?” Moran asks. “They’re not going to go on the road with you. Jack DeJohnette is a great musician, but he’s not going to tour behind your first record when he can go out with Keith Jarrett. When I toured with Greg Osby after he’d made his Art Forum record with Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts and James Williams, we’d get to the gig and the promoter would say, ‘Oh, I wish it was the band on the record.’ We heard that a lot. That’s not what a young musician needs to hear.”

Both Akinmusire and Moran emphasize the importance of trust. If you’ve composed a piece of music that you hear a certain way in your head, it can be nerve-racking to hand that music over to improvisers who are going to play it in ways you never anticipated. You have to trust that they will respect your original intent and add far more than they subtract. Such trust, both musicians say, has to begin off-stage before it can happen onstage. “When you tour,” Moran points out, “your bandmates become your closest family members. When you pick the wrong band members, that can be awful, but when you find the right ones, it’s the most wonderful thing. If you’ve taken care of each other off the bandstand, you know you’re going to take care of the music when you get to the stage. I tell young musicians to pick bandmates that they can imagine eating dinner with for three hours and not mind. I tell them to pick someone that, when you wake up at five in the morning and climb into the van, you won’t want to smack them in the face. Because I’ve been in bands where that has happened.”

“Some musicians say it’s more challenging to always be playing with new people,” Akinmusire acknowledges, “but to me it’s more challenging to play with someone you’ve played with for 15 years. It’s just like being in a relationship. It’s easy to be interesting for those first few months, but can you keep it going for 15 years? I’ve been going with my girlfriend since we were in high school. So when I walk in the door, I can’t have a mask on, because she knows immediately if I’m lying. I’ve known Justin Brown since I was a freshman in high school and he was still in middle school. We know each other’s shit, so we’re always trying to push past that. I want to be with people who aren’t comfortable with where they are as people or as musicians. So they keep rehearsing, they keep pushing themselves … [they] are always reevaluating and reinventing themselves.”


Akinmusire met his girlfriend and his drummer at Berkeley High School, Joshua Redman’s alma mater, the unusual secondary school where a musician can be as popular as an athlete. He had grown up spending most days in North Oakland with his single mom, Cora, and, on the weekends, visiting his divorced dad, also named Ambrose. With a mother from Mississippi and a father from Nigeria, the hyphen in “African-American culture” was not a lofty concept but rather a weekly reality for the youngster. He played piano from the age of 4 in East Oakland’s First Truth Missionary Baptist Church, and grew up listening to his mother’s Aretha Franklin records, his father’s King Sunny Adé records and his own Snoop Dogg records. He fell in love with jazz when he attended a summer camp for middle schoolers run by local musicians. “It didn’t seem like such a big leap from hip-hop to jazz,” he insists. “Both put more emphasis on rhythm than pop music does. Both believe in that idea of pushing the art form ahead, of trying to come up with something new.”

From the Bay Area, Akinmusire moved to the Manhattan School of Music, where he met Smith, a transfer student, and Moran, an alumnus who returned to teach master classes. Smith and Akinmusire’s first collaboration took place at a Manhattan School big-band rehearsal, where the burgeoning trumpeter’s talent was startling. “We were just reading charts down,” Smith remembers, “and he took a solo on one of the tunes. And I just remember turning around and thinking, ‘WTF?’ He played so much music over the top of a big band, I knew that hearing him in a small group setting would be even more amazing. From that moment it was clear to me that I needed to play with him as much as possible.”

After graduating in 2005, Akinmusire and Smith moved to Los Angeles to attend the Monk Institute. Their teachers at the institute included Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, who took the students on a tour of India and Vietnam. “Watching those guys get ready for the gig by chanting-whew,” Akinmusire exclaims. “Talking backstage with Herbie and Wayne about what it means to be a musician and to be a person was life-changing. To see them every day, you understand that they’re real human beings. And the way they act in everyday situations is reflected in their music, and vice versa. To me that was more valuable than hearing about changes.”

It was just one of many plum gigs that Akinmusire landed before and after graduating from the Monk Institute (and the University of Southern California’s master’s program) in 2007. The young trumpeter recorded with Josh Roseman, Linda Oh, John Escreet and Esperanza Spalding and toured with Stefon Harris, Vijay Iyer, the Mingus Big Band and the SFJAZZ Collective. But the best offer of all was an invitation to join Jason Moran’s expanded group for the pianist’s In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall 1959 project. Akinmusire was flattered, but he sheepishly told Moran that he had a problem. In the middle of that fall ’07 tour, he was planning to enter two different trumpet competitions: the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trumpet Competition, held for the first time at Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre, and the Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition. “I was broke,” Akinmusire admits. “For the four months after I graduated from the Monk Institute in May of 2007, I was really scuffling. I had some gigs, but they weren’t always great gigs and there weren’t enough of them. If I won both those competitions, I could get $20,000. My motivation wasn’t to buy a new car or make a down payment on a house; I wanted the money so I could turn down gigs I didn’t want to do and stay home and practice. It didn’t seem impossible, because Joshua Redman had gone to my high school and he had won. And I won both of them.”

He did play a few dates on Moran’s Monk tour, but Akinmusire lived up to the promise he made to himself and used the money to stay home and work on his own music. He formed a band with Smith, Brown, pianist Aaron Parks and bassist Joe Sanders. That quintet, plus vibraphonist Chris Dingman and some guests, made Akinmusire’s first album as a leader, 2008’s Prelude…To Cora, dedicated to his mother. Akinmusire, Sanders and Moran appear on Smith’s recent Criss Cross debut, III, with Logan Richardson and Eric Harland. Akinmusire, Smith and Brown recorded When the Heart Emerges Glistening with Gerald Clayton and bassist Harish Raghavan. (Clayton has since been replaced in the band by keyboardist Sam Harris.) “Ambrose and Walter have grown up together and they feed off each other,” Moran observes. “You can hear Ambrose pushing Walter on Walter’s record, and you can hear Walter pushing Ambrose on this record. On the first track on the new album Walter plays a solo, and when you expect him to stop, he just keeps going; you can hear Ambrose shout his approval. It reminded me of Wayne Shorter’s famous solo on the Jazz Messengers’ ‘Free for All,’ when you hear the band go, ‘Whoa!'”

“I didn’t realize that shout was going to be in the final mix,” Smith says. “Ambrose’s band, in my opinion, is based around creativity through listening, so a recording session is the same as a live performance. If someone feels it, they’re going to shout. It all comes from the band really feeling the energy and momentum.”

On that track, “Confessions to My Unborn Daughter,” Akinmusire answers the challenge of Smith’s geyserlike solo not with an equal torrent of notes but with a trumpet solo that jabs here, there and everywhere in another emotional narrative, an attempt to explain his failures as well as his triumphs to his child-to-be. Most jazz musicians create improvised lines in a linear fashion, sprinting up and/or down a series of small steps. Akinmusire, by contrast, takes slower, bigger leaps across intervals-“giant steps,” as it were-to craft new, unfamiliar melodies. It’s an innovative approach, but the technique is not an end in itself; it’s just a means to realizing his narrative concept.


Akinmusire first started thinking about musical concepts when he was a 19-year-old kid out on the road for the first time with Steve Coleman. The two musicians were riding in a train through Germany when Coleman asked, “Ambrose, what’s your concept?” The youngster evaded the question, protesting that now he was working on his chops; the concept would come later. No, Coleman admonished him, you have to work on the concept at the same time. If you don’t know what you’re trying to do, if you don’t know what you like and don’t like, how will you know what kind of chops you need? How will you know which parts of the music to work on and which parts to put aside?

“He was right,” Akinmusire now admits. “A concept is crucial because it encourages you to figure out what you like, and that allows you to be yourself. A lot of people go through life without figuring out what they like and don’t like. And if you don’t decide for yourself, someone else will decide for you. That’s what commercials do, that’s what schools do; they program you to like this and that. You will never know what you really like and really don’t like until you ask yourself those questions. As long as you keep asking, you’re going to keep developing. If you don’t, you’re going to run into a dead end.”

Originally Published