Ambrose Akinmusire review: embracing risk

Acclaimed young trumpeter’s artistic fearlessness sets an example that transcends music

by DOUGLAS DETRICK

In a solo introduction to a piece he played at his quartet’s June 17 show at Portland’s Mission Theatre, Ambrose Akinmusire began in the lowest register on the trumpet. His sound on those notes is warm, breathy, even fuzzy, but he manages to leap up to brilliant high notes and back down easily. He was doing this, stringing together flurries of notes, and then finished the phrase with a long sweep into a high note, but instead of the note he intended to hit, the sound just stopped.

Akinmusire took a deep breath and restarted the phrase, starting on the high note I assume he meant to play, winding his way back down to the bottom of the horn, sticking the dismount like Simone Biles.

There’s nothing remarkable about that on its own—all musicians make mistakes all the time. In a PDX Jazz concert where this trumpeter played thousands of notes, at nearly every pitch, volume and timbre possible on the instrument, this moment was an outlier in an otherwise brilliant performance, but it revealed much about Akinmusire. The way he handled it made it sound like he’d dealt with that situation many times before. And that moment told me that this artist has embraced risk. He runs towards the difficulty, rather than avoiding it. That he made so few mistakes like that while attempting some of the most challenging things you can do on the instrument is a testament to how good he actually is.

Ambrose Akinmusire performed at Portland’s Mission Theater.

When a young musician has been praised as much as Akinmusire, you can be forgiven for wanting to hear if he deserves it. This concert showed that he’s earned all of it, and provided a powerful example of how a jazz musician can make meaningful music amidst the forces that constantly rip our culture apart and put it back together. Those fissures don’t heal themselves—it takes artists of uncommon vision to mend them, and Akinmusire achieves that by inviting risk into his music as a fundamental building block of his musical worldview.

A trumpet player’s embouchure is the formation of his lips and the muscles that support them around the mouthpiece, and the miniscule motions, strength and endurance required to play the instrument. Akinmusire’s embouchure is worth understanding, even if you’re not a trumpet player like I am. Building one’s embouchure is unique to every individual. You use the lips, teeth and jaw you have, and everyone’s are different. Then you build muscle and muscle memory similar to the way a software developer writes code—step-by-step, brick-by-brick construction, and constant testing with an end goal in mind. But each trumpeter builds his or her own code out of flesh and the trained motions thereof to produce the sounds he or she needs or wants to make. And in the world of jazz, where a player isn’t judged against a single standard but in his success at creating his own sound, Akinmusire has developed a unique embouchure that invites risk, and incorporates that risk into every part of his music.

Ambrose Akinmusire.

The archetypal sound we think of when we think of the trumpet—think of an orchestral trumpeter like Adolph Herseth, or the grandfather of bebop Dizzy Gillespie—and you immediately hear a brilliant, bright, and powerful sound. It was the among the loudest sound you could hear in the days before electric amplification. Many trumpeters spend their careers building and maintaining the embouchure needed for that kind of powerful playing.

But, if you think of another school of thought on the instrument most popularly typified by Miles Davis, you hear an entirely different set of sounds. Davis, especially towards the end of his career, asked his lips to make a much broader range of sounds, going sometimes for a moan, a shriek, or a squeal, not a conventional note. Other trumpeters have followed and extended this thinking—Don Cherry, Wadada Leo Smith, Bill Dixon, Nate Wooley, Taylor Ho Bynum, and Peter Evans to name a few—and all of them embrace the reality that these sounds are inherently unpredictable.

Playing “conventional” music on the trumpet is hard enough, playing these wild noises is even more difficult, and Akinmusire does them both. From the huge variety of sounds, to the great leaps in pitch and volume, he has built an approach that emphasizes the most difficult things to do on the instrument. As a result, he sounds like no other trumpeter, but he is also more open to the risk of making mistakes, something that sets him apart even more than his trumpet playing.

That risk-taking extended from his technique to his aesthetic choices, and to the way his bandmates contributed to his Portland performance. Through most of the set, Akinmusire played with grace and athleticism, but in a more or less conventional way. But on a warm-hearted ballad, his solo explored some of non-standard sound possible on the instrument as well—air rushing through the horn without a note sounding, tortured notes both above and below the usual range of the trumpet, and more wild sounds that wouldn’t hear in most straight-ahead jazz performances. Sam Harris on piano contributed the most in this same vein, but the other members of the quartet, Harish Raghavan on bass and Jamie Williams on drums, each gave solid and varied performances. Overall, the sound of the quartet was warm, dark and earthy, shifting along with the diverse rhythms, forms and tempos that were built into Akinmusire’s compositions.

As jazz has struggled to retain a foothold in world that is nothing like it was during the music’s peak in popularity, Akinmusire has been listening carefully, practicing hard, and fitting together the many disparate parts of motley jazz tradition into a new whole. There’s no sentimentalism in his music, no longing for a bygone era. The music exists in today’s world, where hip-hop, experimentalism, and an innumerable variety of other arts practices live side by side, elbowing each other aside for moments of attention as we, in the United States and throughout the world, wrestle with violence and political upheaval. When this is the world we live in, why leave anything out? Akinmusire’s music speaks that truth in that way, embracing vulnerability even as it flexes its muscles, playing the ugly along with the beautiful, and bringing an audience along on that journey.

Douglas Detrick is a Portland-based trumpeter and composer, and the Executive Director of the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble. He is also an occasional paid consultant to PDX Jazz, presenter of this concert.

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