Ambrose Akinmusire, Part 2

After seeing Ambrose Akinmusire’s quintet at the Jazz Standard in New York City last Sunday night, I realize that, if anything, my recent blog posting sold him short—or fell short, anyway, in describing what makes him so remarkable.

Unlike many of the best young lions of recent years, Akinmusire is not aiming to expand the realm of jazz to include hip-hop, classical, Latin, or whatever. He is steeped in “the jazz tradition” and aims to deepen his stance within it—but his approach doesn’t seem the slightest bit retro. His trumpet tone, as noted earlier, has traces of Clifford Brown and Booker Little; but how he shapes that sound—as a player, a composer-arranger, and an ensemble-leader—is thoroughly distinctive.

He’s just 28, but what may set him aside from other musicians who have won major-label contracts in their youth is that, for the past decade, he’s been an active sideman (with the likes of Joe Henderson, Billy Higgins, Steve Coleman, and Vijay Iyer). He resisted (or, perhaps, a bit of luck, didn’t receive) offers to be a leader prematurely. He’s spent the time, honing his technique, developing a concept—and thus springs forth with his first Blue Note CD, When the Heart Emerges Glistening, very nearly fully blown.

During Sunday’s early set, he’d often string out a solo a bit askew to the harmonic progression of a song, then align with it at a key moment—the end of a phrase, the start of the bridge, or sometimes at a spot of his choosing that sounded right for no clear reason but just was. Or mid-phrase he’d suddenly hold back for a bar or two, then dive in with a flood of notes or maybe two or three slow ones; whatever he did, he’d usually resolves the tension with elegance before unleashing a new round of tension and resolution. This is artistry of a sophisticated order, and it’s what ultimately keeps a jazz-listener riveted.

The band is a truly working band. Walter Smith III, on tenor sax, played off Akinmusire’s cues—sometimes doubling, sometimes doing ricochets—with a clairvoyance and a distinctive sound of his own, too. Drummer Justin Brown and bassist Harish Raghavan provided supple ballast. Pianist Sam Harris coaxed Hancockian colors from the piano.

When each band member took a solo through a song’s unwinding, it wasn’t just to grab a moment in the spotlight, as is often the case in these things. It was to hold the song up to a fresh angle; when the others came back in, they didn’t just go back to the what they’d been playing before; they incorporated the angle into the mix; the song sounded a little different. The band was going through a voyage, carving the path as they moved along.

These guys, all of them, are very much worth watching.