The Upshot: The rising star trumpeter and his ensemble have mastered the difficult art of meandering with purpose, engaging in a brand of jazz that’s more exploratory than goal-driven in the process excavating hidden nuggets and shining light into dark corners while trusting that each has the other’s back.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire has been one of the fastest rising stars in the jazz world for a few years now. A player of formidable technique but excellent taste and a composer with wide-open ears and a taste for melody, the Oakland native has been a sideman on nearly two dozen recordings and made three highly acclaimed records of his own. It might seem a little early for a double-live album, but the ambition behind A Rift in Decorum doesn’t stop there. Not only did Akinmusire record at the famous jazz venue, but he did so with a set of all-original music, without a single track from previous platters.
Joined by pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Ragavan and drummer Justin Brown, Akinmusire surveys his own talent over two hours of music. More of a Miles Davis-like iconoclast than a Freddie Hubbardesque technician, Akinmusire channels self-expression through his instrument regardless of how many music lessons he’s taken. “Brooklyn (ODB)” showcases Akinmusire using his horn for more than just the usual brass tones, as he indulges in deliberately bad technique like letting his breath overwhelm the actual notes, putting his trumpet through its paces as his rhythm section flows like a river behind him. His bleats on the album closing “Umteyo” emphasize insistent blurts of emotion over musical skill. Harris proves himself a spectacular foil for Akinmusire, able to follow him down any winding path the bandleader explores, but also pushing his boss with jagged note clusters and blazing breaks that indicate the ivory-tickler as a child of Hill and Don Pullen.
The trumpeter’s compositions occupy a similar space to that of peers like Jason Moran and predecessors like Andrew Hill – clearly influenced by post-bop, but with a wide-ranging freedom inspired by the avant garde. Too far out to be in but too far in to be out, Akinmusire encourages improvisation without abandoning melody, letting the musicians roam without indulging in cacophony. “Trumpet Sketch (milky pete)” puts jittery time signatures under frisky trumpet and piano lines, while “Maurice & Michael (sorry I didn’t say hello)” adds tuneful swathes to percolating drums and bass. “Taymoor’s World” and the two-part “Piano Sketch” combine tight and loose for a master class in blending agitation with beauty.
Akinmusire also shows a particular talent for atmospheric balladry, as “Moment in between the rest (to curve an ache)” and “Song to exhale to (diver song)” drift like mist through an empty forest, attractive for their mystery as much as for their minimalist melodies. “Condor,” previewed by a Ragavan bass solo, contains more rhythmic push, but exhibits a gorgeous shimmer that soothes the soul. “First Page (Shabnam’s poem)” gets even more ethereal, almost wafting into nothingness, but keeping just enough spine to be an effective mood piece. The quiet drone “Withered” fades into pure tone poetry.
Akinmusire and band have mastered the difficult art of meandering with purpose, engaging in a brand of jazz that’s more exploratory than goal-driven. That’s a good thing, as it allows the musicians to find the nooks and crannies in each tune, excavating hidden nuggets and shining light into dark corners, trusting that each has the other’s back. That tendency to wander may keep A Rift in Decorum from having the feel of a major statement, but it doesn’t mean these live performances are anything less than wonderful.
DOWNLOAD: “Taymoor’s World,” “Maurice & Michael (sorry I didn’t say hello),” “Condor”