Live: Ambrose Akinmusire Leads The Way At The Jazz Standard


Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet
The Jazz Standard
Thursday, April 14

Better Than: Watching Mo’ Better Blues.

Ambrose Akinmusire is a throwback type of jazz musician, a guy who obviously grew up listening to jazz more than anything else and who wants to push the genre forward in its purest form. In this sense, Akinmusire and his quintet are like a real-life incarnation of jazz trumpeter Bleek Gilliam and The Bleek Quintet from Spike Lee’s 1990 film Mo’ Better Blues. They’re making music steeped in tradition at a time when everyone is busy trying to find that next hot thing. But while Bleek eventually tries to incorporate hip-hop into his jazz as a way to appeal to a younger audience, the trumpeter doesn’t need to do such pandering.

From the beginning of his set, which opened with “Confessions To My Unborn Daughter,” Akinmusire and his quintet (Walter Smith III, tenor saxophone; Justin Brown, drums; Sam Harris, piano; Harish Raghavan, bass) made crystal-clear statements not as individuals, but as a collective. The group’s straight-ahead jazz stylings are rich, heady, and advanced. It’s not the most accessible stuff, and definitely not for novice ears, but its beauty is evident on his debut When The Heart Emerges Glistening (Blue Note) and even more apparent in a live setting.

When Raghavan laid into his upright to kick off “Henya,” the audience’s reaction seemed to be more out of awe than politeness. On the ballad “Regret No More,” a duet between Akinmusire and Harris, Akinmusire’s half-valving technique wasn’t to show off his virtuosity so much as it was being used to imitate the sound of a human cry. A lot of Akinmusire’s music is complicated in many ways, but there’s much to be said for his and his group’s virtuosity–they don’t intentionally show off, but they’re so talented on their axes, they wind up doing so anyway.

What stood out most about Akinmusire and his quintet’s show is how the most exciting parts came when the musicians gelled; even in a group setting, most of a jazz show’s best moments are during the soloist turns. But in Akinmusire’s group, the individual players prove their best talent is playing well with others.

The quintet closed its set with “The Walls of Lechuguilla,” a free-jazz ode to the Lechguilla Cave in southeastern New Mexico that sounds as difficult as the title implies. Once again, the group, together, went in, ripping and running along, speaking a language it seemed only they can understand. It was the kind of song Bleek’s bandmate Shadow would have called “grandiose.” But unlike Bleek, Akinmusire didn’t mind. His music, however highbrow and sophisticated, is excellent, and whoever doesn’t hear it loses.

Critical Bias: I heard Akinmusire play when he was in high school; he’s always been great.

Overheard: “This is the sad song.”

Random notebook dump: Dude that seats people at the Jazz Standard is so cool it’s hard to imagine him working anywhere else outside of a jazz club.

Set List
Confessions To My Unborn Daughter
Henya (Bass Intro)
Far But Few Between
Regret No More
The Walls of Lechuguilla