True trumpet artistry.
Ambrose and Friends
True trumpet artistry.
One of the most exciting and distinctive artists in jazz today, Blue Note recording artist and SJW faculty member and alumnus Ambrose Akinmusire has developed an engaging atmospheric sound as a trumpeter and as a composer. Heavily influenced by early encounters with saxophonists Steve Coleman and Joe Henderson while a student here at SJW, as well as by extended studies with trumpet artists Lew Soloff and Terence Blanchard, his star rose rapidly after he won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz competition in 2007. This led to appearances on recordings by Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer, and Esperanza Spalding, among others. Akinmusire returns to SJW this summer for the first time since 2009, having established a reputation for a genre-blurring artistic vision encompassing classical forms as well as the spoken word.
Ambrose Akinmusire, trumpet
Fabian Almazan, keyboards
Linda Oh, bass
Obed Calvaire, drums
When the phone rings for Ambrose Akinmusire these days, the call is often for a major new commission. He gained international attention for his prowess on the trumpet about a decade ago, catapulting into prominence in 2007 with his carefully plotted triumph at the Thelonious Monk International Trumpet Competition, where he displayed preternatural poise and a finely calibrated sense of structure in front of a panel brimming with trumpet royalty (namely Terence Blanchard, Quincy Jones, Clark Terry, and Roy Hargrove, the player who inspired Akinmusire to pursue music as a calling). His banner year continued when he took first place at the Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition and released his heralded debut album Prelude…To Cora (Fresh Sound) featuring a cast that has come to define his generation’s capacious creativity, with pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Joe Sanders, drummer Justin Brown, vibraphonist Chris Dingman, and saxophonist Walter Smith III.
But these days the 34-year-old Oakland-raised Akinmusire is one of jazz’s most esteemed young composers. Last year he was tapped for a prestigious Doris Duke Artist Award and premiered several major new commissions, including “The Forgotten Places” for the Monterey Jazz Festival and “banyan” at Chicago’s Hyde Park Jazz Festival. Last month he premiered a new double quartet collaboration with Cecile McLorin Salvant at the Kennedy Center.
“Cecile and I first met at Monk Competition that she won in 2010,” says Akinmusire, who recently moved back to Oakland after several years in Los Angeles. “We had a lot of things in common, and then we played in Archie Shepp’s band together when he did Attica Blues,” performances released on Shepp’s 2013 album I Hear the Sound. “When this Kennedy Center opportunity came up it was a no-brainer to work with her. I used some of the texts from my partner,” Iranian-born, Berkeley raised poet Shabnam Piryaei, “and set them as songs.”
For gigs Akinmusire can mostly be found performing with his long-time quartet featuring pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan, and fellow Berkeley High alum Justin Brown. Tonight’s concert offers a rare opportunity for him to cut loose with an ad hoc ensemble, albeit, the musicians all share deep ties. Akinmusire first met Obed Calvaire in high school when he played alongside the Miami-raised drummer in the Grammy High School All-Star Band. He met Cuban-born pianist Fabian Almazan at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, and bassist Linda Oh shortly after she moved from Australia to study at the Manhattan School of Music (where she’s now on faculty). “I played in her trio and Obed and I were on her first recording,” 2009’s Entry, says Akinmusire. “Fabian used to play in my band. I’ve known them all for a long time. Linda the shortest, but we’re still talking 11 years.”
Bay Area jazz fans have enjoyed a front row view of Akinmusire’s evolution as an artist, ever since he was a stand- out member of the Berkeley High jazz band in the late 1990s. Taking full advantage of the region’s many musical opportunities, he started immersing himself in jazz through a program at Oakland’s Alice Arts Center run by saxophonist Jessica Jones, a Berkeley High graduate. Trumpeter Khalil Shaheed provided more information and playing opportunities at the Oaktown Jazz Workshop. Trumpeter Robert Porter and pianist Ed Kelly, revered East Bay masters, mentored him, and bandleaders Howard Wiley and Marcus Shelby started hiring the teenage trumpeter for gigs. During a brief stint on faculty at UC Berkeley, visionary alto saxophonist Steve Coleman took Akinmusire and fellow Berkeley High trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson under his wing, introducing them to rhythmic concepts encompassing bebop and Afro-Cuban clave, funk, and West African cycles. But it was at Monterey in 1999 that he “got to see Roy Hargrove, which was one of the moments that I realized that this is what I want to do,” Akinmusire says.
A full scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music put Akinmusire in the thick of the New York action, where his relationship with Steve Coleman blossomed as he went on tour with the saxophonist’s rigorous Five Elements. After four years another scholarship brought him back to the West Coast, and he ended up in the Thelonious Monk Institute’s elite master’s program, which was then run by trumpeter Terence Blanchard at the University of Southern California (where Akinmusire spent several years on faculty at the Thornton School of Music). Back in New York City and signed to Blue Note, he released his second album in 2011, When the Heart Emerges Glistening. Co-produced with Jason Moran, the album showcased Akinmusire’s stellar working quintet and his growing confidence as a composer. But he got his most widespread exposure as the junior member of the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour 55th Anniversary Celebration, an all-star ensemble featuring Christian McBride, Benny Green, Lewis Nash, Chris Potter, and Dee Dee Bridgewater. The band put in the kind of road time that young players rarely experience, with some 50 gigs over the course of two months. Akinmusire loved being in a situation where he was “expected to play in a way I don’t naturally play,” he says. “The challenge was really good for me. That rhythm section was crazy, and getting to meet and play with Chris Potter was amazing. I loved getting to hear stories from Dee Dee, and I learned so much from watching her.”
Now, all eyes are on Akinmusire, who is defining 21st Century jazz as an improviser, bandleader, and composer.