COVID CONVERSATIONS, Volume 7: Ambrose Akinmusire

Here, Akinmusire is masked only by a shadow; rest assured, he wears one when out in public. (Photo by Ogata/courtesy of Blue Note Records.)

With his latest release, “on the tender spot of every calloused moment” (Blue Note), trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire wrestles with painful truths from the perspective of his life as a Black man in the United States and mines inheritances from his extended musical family.

In a liner note, saxophonist Archie Shepp—who worked notably alongside John Coltrane, and who Akinmusire has recently performed with—likens the trumpeter’s commitment to Coltrane’s legendary discipline and rigor. The fruits of such focus are evident in the confident brilliance of the brief trumpet soliloquy that opens the album’s first track, “Tide of Hyacinth,” and in the cohesiveness of his quartet (including bassist Harish Raghavan, drummer Justin Brown and pianist Sam Harris).

As both a player and a bandleader, Akinmusire is by now an essential voice pointing the way forward in jazz’s ongoing story. Another track, “Mr. Roscoe (consider the simultaneous),” explores the open-minded, multi-layered aesthetic of multi-reedist and composer Roscoe Mitchell, who Akinmusire has also played alongside.

His new album music relies mostly on the complex webs of harmony and rhythm woven with seeming ease by this quartet. Still, the best moments are the sparest, most often owing to the sound of Akinmusire’s horn—especially the ringing notes on “Reset (Quiet Victories & Celebrated Defeats)” that glimmer brightly but dissolve into whispers and pained moans.

That pain is not abstract. Nor is its context. (“Considering our history,” he told me, “my mere existence is resistance.”)

On “My Name Is Oscar,” from his 2011 Blue Note debut release, over a drum solo, Akinmusire read aloud accounts of the shooting of a young black man, Oscar Grant III, by a transit officer in his hometown, Oakland, Calif. On “Rollcall for Those Absent,” from a later album, a child recited the names of those killed in similar circumstances—Amadou Diallo and Trayvon Martin, and on—with accompaniment on Mellotron, an electro-mechanical keyboard.

In January, when Akinmusire recorded the new album’s final track, “Hooded Procession (Read the Names Outloud),” he had not yet heard the name George Floyd. But he knew that list would grow, and he sensed active participation (his instruction to read the names out loud) might be in order. Alone, forsaking his horn, playing glistening chords on a Fender Rhodes electric piano, he takes his time as in a church processional, moving nearly imperceptibly from minor key to major, finding fleeting resolution.

I spoke with Akinmusire twice—first, shortly after the Coronavirus lockdown began, and then again, after the protests began following the murder of George Floyd.

When did the pandemic start affected your life and your career?

I was in Europe at the end of February, in Basel, Switzerland, teaching. We were all anxious, things were changing. It all became real for me after I got back home, when Cecile [McLorin Salvant] was in Oakland and her show got canceled. She went to Angela Davis’s house and did a concert. I was there for that. I’ve known Cecile for a little while now. That experience was surreal. Angela Davis is someone whose work I have studied, so meeting her meant a lot. It was all like a dream. And everyone was already getting nervous. Things were shutting down. Still, had no idea exactly what was to come. Then my project at Lincoln Center got canceled. My tour in May got canceled.

What was the last gig you played? 

At the Blue Note with Bill Frisell, the third week of February. Right before I flew to Switzerland. It wasn’t even as much the facts as the uncertainty and the anxiousness that I feel within the artist community that was troubling. I’m a very private person, but I was thinking about how I could help. I did a Q&A on Instagram. People could write in and respond. I’d been getting a lot of emails from students who weren’t in school anymore.

How does it feel?

I don’t know if I really have truly felt it yet. I’m pretty good at being optimistic. But there was a big letdown. I had to write so much for the big-band project. I was also going to play Disney Hall.

What was the inspiration for that Banyansuite?

That was basically to have some kind of live mentorship happen. Three older masters—Jack DeJohnette, Gary Bartz and Tom Harrell—with a great band of established artists. Mentorship is something I was thinking a lot about. I want my peers to experience these masters in the ways that I’ve experienced them. The first iteration of that project was commissioned by Hyde Park Jazz Festival, in 2015. I rewrote all the music for this new iteration.

I know when you talk about mentorship, you’re not just thinking about craft, though it’s that too. Yet I know you’re also getting at a continuity of culture, right?

Yes, very much so.

How does that culture you’re talking about speak to this moment we’re stuck in now?

I’m not thinking about that yet, but one thing I am thinking about is feeling a sense of universal culture. This is the first time I can remember where everyone is feeling the same thing. Maybe there’s some beauty to that. I’m trying to sit in the middle of that.

Is it prophetic or ironic that you titled one track of your new album—and one of my favorites—“Reset”?

Well, now that you mention it, I guess so. Whenever I create an album in the studio, like this one, I still think about it as if I’m playing to an audience. I divide the album in half, and I imagine two sets, with the same audience. So that track serves literally as a reset.

 Another track, “Mr. Roscoe,” is obviously for Roscoe Mitchell, a mentor you’ve been working with. What has affected you most about that connection?

Well, it’s there, in the subtitle—“consider the simultaneous.” There are some things in improvising that transfer into life. It also points toward solutions. Before you do anything, before you question anything, think. These things that are seemingly opposites, in the act of creating together, they might turn out to be the solution. I had never ever dealt with that. I had never had to articulate it. Roscoe made me understand that in a new way.

Is that particularly helpful in this moment?

Well, yes. All these things I once looked at as obstacles have now turned into positive things. I’ve been out of New York for 8 years. I went to L.A., and now I’m back in a very different Oakland than I left. I’ve had to learn how to be self-sufficient for inspiration and creativity. I’m not as affected as my peers are by this experience. For me, the routine of creating hasn’t changed. I really feel for people who rely on the collaborative. I know at some point this lockdown will be lifted, at some point the virus won’t be here. I’m afraid of the loss and the sacrifices we have to make. But the future is not uncertain. We can shape it.

When you recorded Hooded procession” what led you to instruct the listener to “read the names out loud)”?

What I was saying was that there’s a long list of names and it’s only going to grow. My point is twofold. I’m trying to express my exhaustion. I’ve been doing this for 10 years, spanning 3 albums. And I’m telling listener, “It’s your turn here. Maybe this will be more effective.” The first series of chords are minor chords inversions. And then it’s just V-I. It’s literally saying, resolution. I set it up so that it goes resolves to the major.

And of course that list has grown, notably so. Do you think that your music, our music, art in general, can speak to the issues raised by the deaths of George Floyd and others?

Yes, I do.

I do like to say that even if I didn’t draw that connection, I don’t have a choice as a Black person. Black art created in America can’t help but do that. Considering our history, my mere existence is resistance. I think a lot of my music so far has been built on African American experience, and how it is expressed.

For me, as Ambrose, born and raised in Oakland to a mother from Drew, Mississippi, and a father from Nigeria, this is no new moment. These have been the same issues since the first day of my life. These protests—this is necessary, but this isn’t anything new. We might be feeling a collectivism that feels more validated, and that’s good, but the issues have been the issues forever. In terms of me creating the music, that has been in there from the start.

Has that perspective you were born into been deepened or clarified by your connections to Archie Shepp and Roscoe Mithchell and Gary Bartz, among other elders?

Yes, of course, and that process continues. I’ve had conversations recently with Archie Shepp about the blues. It is a story of resilience. That’s what makes the blues the blues. So this is my blues, me working out my own blues in my own time.

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