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Friday, June 07, 2019

Review: Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet – Wellington Jazz Festival, Michael Fowler Centre 6 June 2019 

Photo:Tim Gruar
CoffeeBar Kid at the Wellington Jazz Festival 2019

Born and raised in Oakland, California, intrepid trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire was as a member of the Berkeley High School Jazz Ensemble, where he caught the attention of saxophonist Steve Coleman who hired him as a member of his Five Elements band for a European tour. From there Akinmusire went from strength to strength, playing in the Monterey Jazz Festival's Next Generation Jazz Orchestra. Studying at the famous Manhattan School of Music before returning to the West Coast to take a master's degree at the University of Southern California and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in LA.

He’s racked up a stash of industry awards and released a bunch of very ambitious discs starting in 2007 with his debut recording Prelude... to Cora. He’s a man to hire having worked with Vijay Iyer, Aaron Parks, Esperanza Spalding, and Jason Moran. In 2011 Blue Note snapped him up and released his ground breaking album When the Heart Emerges Glistening. Four years ago he dropped The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint, followed by appearances on Kendrick Lamar's 2015 big effort To Pimp a Butterfly.

Critics agree, when last year he pulled off something of a small miracle of synthesis with Origami Harvest combining state-of-the-art improvisation with stylish, sophisticated pieces for string quartet, experimental electronics, and a dialogue of politically charged spoken word ‘beat poetry‘ performances. With a wind up like that I was fully charged with anticipation.

Photo: Tim Gruar

But first up NZ School of Music Big band, conducted by Roger Fox, gave us a short set played by 15 students, mainly horns. They blasted through a rapid paced selection from Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and a couple of other standards. Sadly, Fox’s break neck speed interpretation of Cheek To Cheek completely ran over it’s fledgling vocalist, leaving her in dishevelled heap on the side of the road. Ambrose Akinmusire has been up at the school teaching and mentoring the trumpeters today. Many in the band were clearly looking well pleased with their day. He'd graciously given some stage time for the students to get a bit of large hall experience. While it’s clear these kids were nervous they had potential and it showed. It was great to see our musical future is in good hands.

After a quick reset, we're underway with the main act. Tonight's audience was smaller and more intimate than last night with Herbie Hancock but still enthusiastic and engaging. A younger set but that's no surprise given that his latest album is such a wide ranging selection incorporating everything from chamber music to rap and hip hop. I’d hoped the night would include some of the material from Origami Harvest but that wasn’t on the agenda. Instead, the show drew inspiration from When the Heart Emerges Glistening and The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint. I say ‘inspiration” because none of these loose, free jazz approximations were announced. Even the most ardent fan would have trouble deciphering what belonged on wax and from which record it came from.

The first thing that strikes you is how incredibly coherent and tight this quartet is. No surprise, given that they’ve been operating as a working unit for nearly seven years. Individually, any one of these players could hold their own. But working together with this alchemist, Ambrose, Sam Harris (piano), Harish Raghavan (bass) and Kweku Sumbry (drums) reach a considerably higher plain. Watching this team at work, it seems to me more logical to describe how they operate rather than how they are lead.

Photo: Tim Gruar
In fact, it’s not really clear who’s in charge. Raghavan and Sumbry are a uniquely potent force and constantly show their singular ability to design and deliver the structure and the shape of each a piece. Over that there are textures of light and rough, delicacy and harshness from Harris’s piano and Akinmusire’s trumpet.

At just 21 and only recently graduated, Sumbry proved himself to be the real the star tonight. He gave us a relentless onslaught of multi cadenced rhythms and counter rhythms. There were times when his left and right hand, left foot and right foot were all travelling in different directions that made no sense but were perfectly aligned to navigate this twisted landscape designed and laid down by the other three.

I’d heard that Akinmusire is the future of trumpet playing in the jazz world, so tonight I was expecting great things. But somehow I felt a little bit let down. He seemed to be leading an the unremitting search for contrast, for tonal texture, to take the listener somewhere unexpected. Yet at the same time, he seemed to get a bit lost. His unstructured playing sometimes fell a bit flat to these ears. And a bit pointless. Still I’m not a player. Sometimes abstract playing is about the sculptures they create in your ears, rather than a simple melody abstracted and manipulated. Perhaps it was the odd, tuneless squeaks and blasts that didn’t go with the rest of the composition.

Occasionally, I thought he was playing bad, unintentional notes, as if his trumpet was malfunctioning. Only once did we get a proper solo section, which was simply a selection of random arpeggios, a re-imagining of a Bach prelude, or something like that. Other times he teased us into more conventional rich atonal moments that were more familiar to conventional jazz playing. It was only then that I really saw the skill bubble up. Yet playing this was seemed like a cop out. Where was the brash experimentation of his recorded albums? Ultimately I felt dissatisfied.

I’d like to say our attention was fully held through out the night but this wasn’t entirely true. I don’t want to write off the night as mediocre but I did come away feeling like there was more to this than I’d received. Akinmusire is clearly a musician’s musician and there were several mesmerising solos, especially from young Kweku Sumbry who is definitely one to watch, but beyond there seemed to be little more than a sustained intention to preserve a level of the Avant Guard within the confines of conventional modern jazz.

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