I came in expecting great things from Ambrose Akinmusire’s latest album, and I was not disappointed. The trumpet player’s sixth album, on the tender spot of every calloused moment, displays an amazing range of ideas, style, and performance. Released on June 5 by Blue Note Records, it is mostly unlike anything I have ever heard.
A Berkeley High School (BHS) alumnus, Akinmusire (Oakland, 1982) has studied with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Terence Blanchard. All of the musicians — pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Justin Brown — supply an amazing performance, but Akinmusire is stunning, especially on slower pieces.
The opening track, “Tide of Hyacinth,” sets the stage for the album, with most other songs further developing a stylistic aspect of the piece. Collective improvisation? It will return in “Mr. Roscoe (consider the simultaneous).” Random sounds from the quartet? That’s taken to the extreme in “Blues.” Weaving in and out of structure, “Tide of Hyacinth” gives each musician time to shine, while sharing a beautifully original musical framework. It is the perfect piece to start this album. Well, except for the screech at the end — that was strange. “Mr. Roscoe (consider the simultaneous)” unveils some of the album’s bebop influences. About a minute in, one hears similarities with Herbie Hancock’s “One Finger Snap” ( Empyrean Isles, 1964). Throughout the entire album, melodies are often played simultaneously by trumpet and piano. Here, the two instruments are in harmony (sometimes in dissonance), but in every other track, they are in unison. Particularly, in “Yessss,” the piano is in unison with both the bass and the melody. “Mr. Roscoe” ends with collective improvisation. A pleasant break in the album comes with “An Interlude (that get’ more intense),” which does, in fact, get more intense. For a third of the piece, we get a beautiful bass solo, which ends with the drums rolling in on the snare, along with the piano. For a short while, it is just the trio, until the trumpet arrives, bending the song towards a Latin-Jazz style. And yet, as the drums stay “Latin,” the rest of the group — the piano’s comping (rhythms and styles used when playing chords), and Akinmusire’s solo — leans into swing. The piece becomes stronger as the trumpet cuts out, the pianist returns to Latin-Jazz comping, and the drummer uses more flourishes. Then, the trumpet returns, and the piece fades out.
For me, the most distinctive song in on the tender spot of every calloused moment is probably “Roy.” This piece, a fairly standard swing ballad, feels out of place among stranger compositions. Its elegant compositional texture includes some of Akinmusire’s best playing. It also follows a clearly defined structure, something otherwise only hinted at. For those who are not into free jazz, this is the track that may lead you towards the greatness that is Ambrose Akinmusire. Finally, the weirdest piece in the whole album: “Blues.” It opens with squeals on the trumpet, bowed and plucked bass, some tapping, air being blown, and generally strange sounds. Yet, as I continued to listen, it began to feel familiar; the squeaks less like a trumpet, but more like the screeches of seagulls, the bass more like the horns of ships. It began to sound like sitting somewhere around the Oakland docks. Then, the illusion is lost; a cymbal begins to swing into your auditory perception, a walking bassline begins, and it becomes a tune. Akinmusire starts a solo more similar to something you might find in a big band recording. Then it falls into free jazz again, before climbing back to form for the end. After this track, the album closes off with a reserved piece, with synth alone.
It comes as no surprise that this album was produced by Blue Note Records, one of the most prestigious jazz record labels in the world. Blue Note Records — established in 1939 by Max Margulis, a communist writer, and Alfred Lion, a Jewish immigrant from Germany — has its own place in the history of cultural marginality that lays at the core of the American music industry. Within Blue Note’s extensive catalog, Akinmusire’s album leaves very few jazz “stones” unturned; it is immensely creative, beautifully performed, and structured to pull you through an incredible narrative of music. It is really interesting to think that Akinmusire’s journey began at BHS, through its great jazz program. All considered, it comes as no surprise that he was boosted to professional status through its internationally renowned Jazz Ensemble.
Ambrose Akinmusire has created an album that is a melting pot of different ideas, styles, and concepts, creating something beautiful in the process.