When The Heart Emerges Glistening
In 1959, legendary jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman set out a musical manifesto through his seminal album The Shape of Jazz to Come. In 2011, Californian trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire redefined that shape with his second album as bandleader When The Heart Emerges Glistening. One could be forgiven for thinking the title of this album, Akinmusire’s first under the direction of EMI owned label Blue Note Records, is a little presumptuous, but the emotional weight of the album far surpasses the artist’s 30 years.
Born in 1982 in Oakland, California, Akinmusire was touring by the age of 19 when bandleader Steve Coleman, related to Ornette Coleman only by choice of instrument, asked him to play in his Five Elements quintet on an extensive tour of Europe. It was this experience that set his trajectory, with Coleman forcing the young musician to crystallize his own understanding of his place within the genre.
“Ambrose, what’s your concept?” Akinmusire recalls being asked by Coleman one night.
“Concept? I’m 19, I don’t need a concept. It’ll just come one day.”
“You’ve got to start thinking about it now. Everything you don’t love, make sure that’s not in your playing.”
Listening to Akinmusire play, it seems he has taken this maxim to heart. The emotional involvement both in live performance and on recording is matched only by his supreme ability on the trumpet.
This technical accomplishment is hardly surprising. Following the Five Elements tour, Akinmusire enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music before completing a master’s degree at the University of Southern California and attending the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Los Angeles. It was during this period that his unique style and playing ability was to develop.
“When I got back to school I wrote a list. It was specific, it had things on it like ‘I don’t want to be defined by my instrument’ or ‘I want to have a sound like a French Horn player’. It caused me a lot of trouble because if a teacher told me to do something and it didn’t really fit what was on the list I didn’t listen to them. It really made me learn who I was because I had to defend it every day.”
At the Thelonious Monk Institute, Akinmusire was given more freedom to explore his own idiosyncratic style. Under the tutelage of figures such as Terence Blanchard, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, the 25-year-old began to show signs of his talent, winning the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition and the Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition. Akinmusire remembers this period of his life fondly:
“I learned a lot from Terence. He really got me to be one hundred percent comfortable in the things I was hearing in my head. After the Monk Institute it was just me going for my own sound and my own concept.”
The trumpeter’s first album as bandleader, the 2008 Prelude…To Cora, intimates the fluency to come; Akinmusire features alongside his impressive line-up of young musicians, including tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III and drummer Justin Brown, who return in sublime form on his 2011 follow-up. Track such as Dingmandingo show off the artists’ improvisation ability, while pianist Aaron Parks and Akinmusire demonstrate their emotional sensitivity through the beautifully pared-down duet Stablemates, based on the Benny Golson classic.
The album is well formed and deserving of appreciation, but perhaps a slight insecurity of youth prevents Akinmusire from taking centre stage. No such qualms appear on When The Heart Emerges Glistening. The opening track Confessions to My Unborn Daughter launches into unknown territory, the lone trumpet of Akinmusire exploring new musical terrain before the crash of Brown’s cymbal unites the rest of the band around its leader. It is a mark of supreme confidence that the young musician can captivate his listener with a cappella motifs, a trope that translates into live performance.
Currently touring with his quintet, Akinmusire brought his free-jazz experiments to London’s famous Ronnie Scott’s Club in March to a packed house. Paul Pace, jazz connoisseur and musical co-ordinator at the club, explained the decision to host the “up and coming” musician by lauding his “musical quality” and the “exploratory” nature of his playing.
“It’s not a melodic progression,” Pace explains, “You can’t hum along. It’s tone based, evolving improvisation.”
It is the group’s improvisation ability that is most impressive in live performance, with Smith and Akinmusire rolling over one another’s riffs with increasing complexity. Unpicking his relationship with the Texan saxophonist, Akinmusire states:
“He and I never have any musical conversations. It’s amazing, it feels like he’s part of my brain and I’m part of his. I know exactly what he’s thinking, what note he’s going to end on, when he’s going to play something, when he’s going to stop.”
These exchanges are fascinating to watch, the two men in complete musical symbiosis. However, it is at the end of the Ronnie Scott’s set that his maturity is demonstrated. With the rest of the band making their exit, Akinmusire remains for one last number. Alone onstage there was only a hint of vulnerability, immediately dispelled by a dazzling solo in which he forced his instrument to the very limits of its capability. Watching him perform his ‘concept’ live onstage, the title of his 2011 album begins to make sense.
“When The Heart Emerges Glistening refers to being present, emotionally invested, honest – not exclusively in our art, but in every act of expression,” says Akinmusire. “It’s about parting our chests to reveal ourselves to one another and to ourselves, to reflect honestly the ‘everything’ of us – the ugly, the changing, the vulnerable, the fierce, the solid, the safe.”
He is endearing to watch onstage: humbled by the turnout and gracious of the crowd’s appreciation. It is a markedly different tone to the hostility often displayed by jazz pioneer and fellow trumpeter Miles Davis. Perhaps the comparisons are premature; indeed, the music is certainly very different. However, Akinmusire seems to be cultivating an appreciative and discerning following. With all eyes watching his progress, it must be difficult to maintain such composure.
The difficulty of putting together such an interesting album is that anything that follows will necessarily draw comparison. Whist this is inherent to the process of artistic progression, Akinmusire must maintain a sense of mutability. When The Heart Emerges Glistening explores the novel possibilities of his craft. Alongside his loyal band of likeminded collaborators, Akinmusire must push this project further, excavating deeper into his own artistic soul. With characteristic maturity, he is mindful of this need:
“With every act of expression, it is a newly excavated heart, so that through listening closely, we are ultimately chronicling every present moment, and constantly re-examining our changing selves. In bearing ourselves this way, we connect more deeply with one another.”
One can only hope that the future sounds to issue from this young man’s trumpet will excite us with the same combination of flair and emotional integrity.
W. J. Humphries