fri 24/03/2023

Ambrose Akinmusire, Colston Hall, Bristol | reviews, news & interviews

Ambrose Akinmusire, Colston Hall, Bristol

Ambrose Akinmusire, Colston Hall, Bristol

A triumphant performance by the messiah of the post-bop trumpet

Ambrose Akinmusire caught the ear of Joe Henderson and Steve Coleman while still at college

Ambrose Akinmusire is the new jazz sensation, the messiah of the post-bop trumpet. With his hyper-talented and youthful quintet, the 29-year-old Californian delivered a set in Bristol that rang all the changes from the soft and lyrical to high-energy heat.

Akinmusire took the stage following an at times dazzling opening performance from the equally young, gifted and black British pianist Robert Mitchell. The American trumpeter started with a kind of alaap, a jazz equivalent of the prelude to a raga when the lead instrumentalist explores the tonalities of his chosen mode. It was as if Akinmusire were invoking the spirits of jazz, calling them down to join the dance, taking his trumpet through a series of hair-raising twists, none of them mere virtuoso stuff, but delicate and carefully paced. As the piece, a new composition called “Richard”, took off, saxophonist Walter Smith played his longest solo in the set – for Ambrose Akinmusire is very much the star - a rising series of choruses that built up with the force of a gospel sermon. Words once spoken to me by the Cameroonian sax player Manu Dibango came to mind: “When you play a jazz solo, you’re like a preacher, you have to speak with conviction and convince your audience. The man with the elegant turns of phrases”, Dibango had said with a smile, “he is the best preacher”.

Akinmusire is out there, stretching his instrument in a way that is both delightfully playful and impressively serious

The whole set felt like a series of highly articulate statements and exchanges, with every member of the band remarkably skillful in expressing the feeling of the moment that embodies the essence of jazz.  The pace and mood changed throughout: fierce moments that burned with great intensity were followed by swathes of lyrical beauty. Haresh Raghavan drew ethereal sounds out of his bass, bowing it with tenderness.  Akinmusire followed with an exquisite solo on “Regret No More”, in the same vein, drawing sounds from the trumpet that went beyond anything I had ever heard, although I caught echoes of Clifford Brown’s fluid dexterity and, by way of contrast, the dirty jungle sounds of Bubber Miley.

Greg Tate once wrote in the Village Voice of those black artists who have digested everything that has gone down before them, and having soaked up the spirit of their musical history, create something that combines the strengths of the past with the innovative spirit of the present. He cited Duke Ellington and Jimi Hendrix as prime examples, along with Tricky, who had without doubt, absorbed an incredibly broad range of influences from Robert Johnson to the Eric B & Rakim. Ambrose Akinmusire is another of those remarkable musicians, steeped in tradition and yet surfing on the very edge of a new musical wave they are involved in inventing.

How do you extend the sound palette of the trumpet? Not just by going for new and outlandish sounds, but by carrying within you the memory of Louis Armstrong, Cootie Williams, Roy Eldridge, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard, and working with that noble lineage, not as hallowed heritage but as fuel for musical brinkmanship. Akinmusire is out there, stretching his instrument in a way that is both delightfully playful and impressively serious. Brass instruments can be just that – a little too brassy - but he breathes a different and more subtle kind of life into his trumpet, with a soft touch that embraces its metallic essence and yet transcends it.

In the encore, the young trumpeter entered into a conversation with Justin Brown, the drummer who had combined cool measure with stimulating fireworks throughout the set. Their breathtaking dialogue was wordless and yet they spoke clearly to each other with warmth and humour. In Africa, the drums talk – not least the Yoruba dundun or talking drum. Even though they might swing, when jazz drummers just kept the beat, something was lost.  Justin Brown, in the tradition of the best post-bop drummers, not least Tony Williams, who played a crucial role in changing the way Miles Davis played the trumpet, knows how to make his drums talk. And Akinmusire can hear him talking.

There was something primal about the young trumpeter and drummer conversing in such a sophisticated and articulate way: as if the collective joy at the heart of early jazz improvisation, in those New Orleans marching bands, still so close to the drums of Congo Square, were being rediscovered, not just once but with every musical phrase that the two musicians delivered with shared exhilaration.

Watch the Ambrose Aknimusire Quintet at the Jazz Standard in 2008

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