Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire makes a jazz life on his own terms

Boston Globe, May 4, 2012

NEW YORK — Ambrose Akinmusire — young trumpeter, recent signee to the hallowed Blue Note label, and author, with his quintet, of one of last year’s best-received jazz albums — is a creature of habit.

“Annoyingly so,” he says, laughing.

He wakes every day at the same time, and makes the ritual walk to his favorite coffee shop in upper Manhattan, one mile and back. He settles in to practice, watching in the background the same TV shows. His constancy, he says, drives his girlfriend nuts. They’ve been together 13 years, since high school in Berkeley, Calif.

Akinmusire, 30, is a guy who knows what he likes.

“That’s just who I am,” he says, over lunch in a Morningside Heights cafe. He’s enjoying a mozzarella panino, the same one he’s ordered hundreds of times in the past decade, since attending the Manhattan School of Music nearby.

“I have to have a routine,” he says. “It allows me to be free on the bandstand.”

For Akinmusire, habit doesn’t breed predictable music. Quite the opposite: Through his loyalties and routines, he’s built a tight-knit band of mostly old friends who feel safe experimenting together. They need little direction and even less reassurance.

Their album “When the Heart Emerges Glistening” — Akinmusire’s second as a leader, and his Blue Note debut — documents this complicity. It’s a quietly thrilling record that finds rare balance among competing instincts in today’s jazz: structure and looseness, jaggedness and melody, the cryptic and the cinematic.

Its central sinews are the interwoven lines of Akinmusire and tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, who dip and glide with mind-meld synchronicity, bending notes like aerial acrobats then landing unruffled. Bassist Harish Raghavan, drummer Justin Brown, and pianist Gerald Clayton complete the unit on the CD; another Akinmusire acolyte, Sam Harris, now holds the band’s piano spot.

Produced by pianist Jason Moran, the album takes liberties with standard jazz song structure. On one track, “My Name Is Oscar,” Akinmusire sets down his horn and speaks terse snippets of text against an anxious Brown drum track. The duet is a requiem for Oscar Grant, the man killed by transit police in Oakland, Akinmusire’s hometown, in 2009; it registers like Morse code, or a telex.

Now Akinmusire and friends are rolling out a batch of brand new compositions, which they bring to the Regattabar Friday. The new music, he cautions, sounds quite different from what’s on his CD.

“It’s more through-composed,” he says. “We can end up playing four songs in one set, with not many breaks. There are certain songs that go together even though they’re completely different.”

The effect, as heard during their stand at New York’s Jazz Standard last week, is more narrative than on the album. Akinmusire admires bandleaders Maria Schneider and John Hollenbeck, who write music that plays with layers, constructs and unspools stories, and the inspiration shows.

“There’s a lot of sections,” says pianist Harris. “Solo interludes, duets, breaking up the band into different combinations. It’s a longer form, more concerned with the overall developing arc. It’s exciting to explore.”

What unites the band is a shared curiosity.

“I prefer to be around people who are never satisfied, always reaching for something,” Akinmusire says. “That’s definitely this band.”

It’s the kind of group he can lead with great confidence and a light touch.

“He trusts our instincts,” Harris says. “He creates an environment where it’s OK to mess up as long as we’re all trying to take risks together.”

Akinmusire prefers art that stumbles en route to transcendence, not music that’s practiced and reliable. He likes Björk; his current favorite rappers are the rough-and-tumble Danny Brown or Tyler, the Creator, not the ones “who have a 10-minute-long ‘freestyle’ memorized.”

On the trumpet, he seeks to be maximally virtuosic, yet also capable of sounding like a beginner, and bringing that rawness when he improvises.

“I don’t practice improvisation,” he says. “I want to sound like I’m on the edge, looking over. I’m OK with sounding bad. What’s the worst that can happen?”

Akinmusire exudes the confidence of one who is comfortable turning down gigs that aren’t just right, and walking away if it feels necessary.

In part, his résumé allows it.

His first tour, fresh out of high school, was with innovating saxophonist Steve Coleman. He got advanced training at the hyper-selective Thelonious Monk Institute. He won the 2007 Monk International Jazz Competition and a major trumpet prize.

But he also credits his upbringing, as the only child of a single mother whom he calls his rock, in a tough part of Oakland. “It was very rough,” he says. “On July 4, me and my mom would lay on the floor because people were shooting all night.”

The milieu gave him, he says, “a bit of a hood mentality,” which accounts for his loyalty to old friends: “You stick to the people you’re closest with.”

Among the Oakland musicians who took him under their wing were former Black Panthers. “I almost grew up in a Black Conscious museum. And then I went to Berkeley High School where you had the children of hippies.”

As much as his achievements and critical acclaim, it’s this inimitably East Bay background that gives Akinmusire the distance — the freedom — to craft a jazz life on his own terms. So much so that he’s moving, next month, to Los Angeles, at a time when conventional career wisdom would dictate that he stay in New York.

There are musicians in LA beyond jazz whom he’d love to work with: Flying Lotus, Thundercat, even Skrillex. But he’s mostly seeking a pleasant place to regroup after touring, to practice and create.

“This whole jazz thing is really rough, it’s not a way of living,” he says. “I’d rather live in a nice environment, with nice energy. Where I can exhale.”

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