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The Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet is Ready for Its 'Live at the Vanguard' Moment

Ambrose Akinmusire
Autumn de Wilde
Courtesy of the artist

Ambrose Akinmusire has accrued many achievements in the last decade, since his first-place finish at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trumpet Competition. But he hasn’t yet made a live album at the Village Vanguard, a rite of passage for so many of his precursors. That all changes this week — and judging by his quartet’s superb hourlong set on Sunday night, the results will be worth pursuing.

Akinmusire, 34, could have waited a bit longer for a “Live at the Vanguard” credit, given his aptitude for making studio albums that feel like complete artistic statements. Both of his previous releases on Blue Note have garnered acclaim, not only from the jazz citizenry but also among perceptive listeners in other corners. His second, the imagined savior is far easier to paint, conveyed a breadth of timbre and emotional color unusual for an album by a young jazz player. And it cleared space at the table for Theo Bleckmann, Becca Stevens and Cold Specks, three brilliant singers pushing past known parameters of style. 

At the same time, Akinmusire has been a strong and instinctive bandleader, in the best tradition of postbop trumpeters before him. His working band matches him with an excellent rhythm section: Sam Harris on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass and Justin Brown on drums. Previous editions of the group featured tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III and guitarist Charles Altura, but Akinmusire has held to a quartet format for a while now: it was with the quartet that he made his Village Vanguard debut, around this time last year.


Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet at the Falcon, Jan. 29, 2017
Credit Nate Chinen
Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet at the Falcon, Jan. 29, 2017

On Sunday they appeared at The Falcon, an anchor of the Hudson Valley jazz scene, in Marlboro, N.Y. And even if the gig had been intended as a warmup, Akinmusire and the band didn’t hold anything back: their set was an enthralling tempest, distinguished both by refinement and risk. It mainly consisted of new compositions — including two untitled set pieces, one in ethereal waltz time and the other following a cycle of quickening feints and unfurling grandeur. The entire set was stamped by collective insight, a sense that every member of the band had a hand at the controls even as Akinmusire decisively steered.

Brown is the thermoacoustic engine at the heart of the band: he has the longest history with Akinmusire, going back to their youth in Oakland, Calif., and it seems clear that some of the new tunes were conceived with his inspired drumming in mind. “Maurice and Michael” was one these, with a march cadence that gradually dissolved into polyrhythmic flow, at which point Akinmusire played a solo full of punchy intervallic leaps and chromatic tensions.


A tune called “Umteyo” framed the issue more directly, opening in a wild hailstorm of snare, toms and cymbals, while Akinmusire and Harris (playing a small Nord synthesizer) fashioned the calmest of counterarguments. On “Trumpet Sketch,” by contrast, composure was off the agenda: after a formally inventive solo cadenza by Akinmusire, the band lunged into peekaboo bop mode, followed by a stretch of urgent free improvisation that evoked the spikier side of Andrew Hill.

Akinmusire has such a daring and distinctive voice on trumpet that it’s remarkable his playing doesn’t dominate the experience of hearing his band. The moments in the set when he took the full spotlight were its bookends, painterly ballads played in duologue with Harris. “Glaciers,” the opener, had a processional and elegiac air. “Regret (No More)” was an unscheduled encore that Akinmusire slowly made a tour de force, with whistle tones, half-valve slurs and other expressive touches that served the hushed mood of the song.



The Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet performs through Sunday at the Village Vanguard. Its live album is due out on Blue Note this May.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.