Different Branches: Ambrose Akinmusire Speaks

Over the course of his career, Ambrose Akinmusire has complicated traditional labels and categories, collaborating with artists as wide-ranging as Brad Mehldau, Kendrick Lamar, Mary Halvorson, Esperanza Spalding, Robert Glasper, and Steve Coleman. The diversity of his musicianship is also apparent in his albums as a leader, including the forthcoming on the tender spot of every […]

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Over the course of his career, Ambrose Akinmusire has complicated traditional labels and categories, collaborating with artists as wide-ranging as Brad Mehldau, Kendrick Lamar, Mary Halvorson, Esperanza Spalding, Robert Glasper, and Steve Coleman. The diversity of his musicianship is also apparent in his albums as a leader, including the forthcoming on the tender spot of every calloused moment out on Blue Note Records in June.

We caught up with Akinmusire to discuss this forthcoming release, the role music can play in healing, and his memories of both Roy Hargrove and the early moments of his career at The Jazz Gallery.

The Jazz Gallery: How are you handling everything that is going on with the Coronavirus? Is it particularly motivating or demotivating you in making music?

Ambrose Akinmusire: I’m pretty self-inspired. Also, since I don’t live in New York or LA, I am used to not hearing that much music and not being inspired by my external environment. So the current pandemic does not change things for my day to day life that much. At the same time, it is forcing me to reevaluate my community and value relationships with people a little more. If we want to talk about how it has impacted me and if I know anyone who passed away, yeah. I was very close to Wallace Roney and a few other people who have died, not necessarily from COVID-19 itself, but who were sort of side-swiped from this.

TJG:  Do you think the current pandemic will have on your music going forward? 

AA: I think all art represents the circumstances in which it is created, even when the artist is not necessarily aware of its impact. If you look at the music before, during, and after the Vietnam War, you can sort of sense and feel the war’s impact. Same thing with World War II. It is always in the music somewhere.

TJG: You’ve significantly addressed racism and police brutality in your music. A number of reports have shown that the coronavirus has disproportionately hit people of color. Do you think this ties into some of the messages on your prior works?

AA: It does and it doesn’t. What I am trying to do is connect what is happening today with the past, both musically and socially. When people talk about racism, they have a tendency to focus on a statement like “Black Lives Matter” and treat it as a present thing. And it is, but it is also a continuation of what came before. I am interested in connecting the present to the past so that when future generations look back, they can see how they are all connected. You see the problem and a culture that is trying to find solutions to it. The important thing is to continue the narrative. Many of the same problems that existed before are still here and have never gone anywhere. Black music and black art has always been about that.

In some ways, I see my job as similar to that of a journalist. That is, to observe these things, distill them, and put them into art. To come up with a concoction that can help heal people. I also think that culturally that is how music works best. If you think about the blues, you are talking about resilience. You are taking a shitty situation and having the audacity to go forward.

TJG: To make something of it?

AA: Yeah, to have even just a pinhole of optimism in a shitty situation. It is also related to your other question of police brutality and all these things. I am really trying to find some optimism in everything. It is like the last part of the blues; you know “My baby left me and she’s not coming back.  My baby left me and she’s gone forever. My baby left me but tomorrow I am going to get a new baby.” That last part is my focus.

TJG: Which in a way leads to your new album on the tender spot of every calloused moment (Blue Note) which is coming out in June.  It seems more blues-based than your prior recordings. It does not just fixate on negative things but instead seems to take a realistic view that mixes what is great and what is horrible.

AA: Yeah. I have been thinking a lot these days on how to express the blues. When we think of the blues, we think of Muddy Waters or certain sonic aspects of the music. What I am really interested in though is the feeling that happens right before you play one of these cliché things and how to express that feeling in the context of today. As Ambrose Akinmusire—born to a Nigerian father and a mother from Mississippi and raised in Oakland—my experience won’t sound like BB King’s. You know? What we are dealing with is completely different and it’s trying to figure out how to create that.

TJG: The song “Tide of Hyacinth” features Jesus Diaz singing in Yoruba. What inspired you to include vocals in that language and the less traditional choice of having a Cuban musician provide this part? 

AA: My father speaks Yoruba. So I grew up with the sounds of that language in my head. So it was actually one of the most natural things I could do. We played that song a lot of times and when we would get to that section, I would hear this voice. I don’t speak Yoruba anymore and I didn’t know what it was. I told the band that I heard someone singing over it but it was in a different language or something. I kept experimenting with things and put on some stuff from Nigeria and realized that is what I was looking for. I recently played cowbell at a ceremony led by Jesus Diaz and it made me remember that he was a master at singing in that way. It really just sounds like the music I grew up listening to every day.

TJG: Most people would identify you as a trumpet player. But one of the more interesting things about the newest album is that there are two tracks where you don’t play trumpet at all. What inspired you to switch to the Fender Rhodes on these? Were trumpeters who have performed on both—Miles Davis or Nicholas Payton, for instance—an influence on this choice?

AA: No, not at all. Actually, on Origami Harvest (Blue Note), I took the keyboard solo on “Americana.” I’ve been playing piano at least 8 or 9 years longer than trumpet. So it is natural. For me, the trumpet is just an instrument that I happen to play. A lot of times, when I get commissions to do things, I have a hard time hearing the trumpet in it. Because it is not my favorite instrument actually.

TJG: If it is not your favorite, then why focus on the trumpet?

AA: To be able to better express myself. It is my main instrument, but I try my best to play it more like my favorite instruments: a cello or the female voice. I play piano on the album just because it sounded like it should be on there.

TJG: Similar to expanding beyond a particular instrument, you play a wide range of music from hip-hop to avant-garde. Do you find that people try to confine what you do or put you into some sort of box of a jazz musician?

AA: I can answer that in so many different ways. From the perspective of whether people put me into a box, yeah I am sure they do. But do I care? No, I don’t [laughing]. I really don’t care about what people are thinking I should or shouldn’t do or what I can or can’t do. I am really just trying to be as open as possible. I am playing what the music says to play. And to do so with the people the music says to play with, whether it be Mary Halvorson, my quartet, Bill Frisell, Wolfgang Muthspiel, Kendrick Lamar, Nappy Nina, or whoever. It is just music. It is just what the music tells me to do.  If the music says play a bunch of trumpet, I will do that. But if it tells me not to, I would instead do that. It is not so deep to me.

At the same time, I think it is natural for artists to expand their views on what it is they do. I think unfortunately in jazz a lot of our heroes or masters died young so we didn’t really get to see them really expand. But look at artists who lived a little bit longer. If you look at Duke and take his first record and put it alongside the Latin Suite or him playing with Trane. Or think about Dizzy and where he first came out compared to where he stopped with the all-star bands with Arturo Sandoval. It is a wide range. Or take someone like Herbie or Sonny Rollins who also had a wide range. Unfortunately in a lot of jazz education, we focus on a 7 to 8 year period of music and pretend like these masters didn’t expand. I think it is natural for them to expand. Because of technology, we can see everything all at once now and that the masters were always expanding. So I think maybe that has influenced a lot of what it is. Even if you look at the stuff that was happening in LA in the 1970s when Quincy [Jones] went out there and started bringing Freddie [Hubbard] and George Duke and others and they were doing these soundtracks and collaborating with pop people, it was the same sort of thing going on.

TJG: Your albums titles are always fantastic and an art in and of themselves. on the tender spot of every calloused moment (Blue Note) is no exception. How do you come up with your titles?

AA: I am going to keep that one as a secret [laughing]. What I can tell you is that it is a long process of brainstorming. First by myself then I access my amazing circle of people and we brainstorm together. If I am being honest, it is usually just boiled down titles. Like after I settle on twenty titles, I try to boil them into one thing. But all my titles also express who I am in my life at that time, my views on the world, and what I am dealing with internally.

TJG: I noticed one of the tracks is named in honor of Roy Hargrove who, in addition to being a brilliant artist was also one of The Jazz Gallery’s co-founders. How did you first meet Roy and what influence did he have on your music or you personally?

AA: There are so many entries into that conversation about Roy. I met him at least twenty-three years ago. We had different relationships over those years. I will say that he was the first jazz musician I heard that I felt I could relate to. Being from North Oakland growing up in the inner city and the Baptist church and during the crack era of the 1980s, there are certain sonic elements that are part of your environment. When I heard Roy play the first time, he presented the sounds of all of those things. I immediately fell in love. I had heard other musicians of course, but that was the first time I felt that I really wanted to commit to expressing myself in an improvised fashion.

Wynton Marsalis gets a lot of credit for what happened to jazz in the 1980s and 1990s and bringing other musicians up. I really believe what he was to those decades, Roy Hargrove was in many ways to the 2000s. We all looked up to him. We all played any time he was around. He was also very accessible. He was always at the jam sessions and leading by example. A few times, when I had gigs at The Jazz Gallery, I would see Roy’s shadow in the back and we would often end up in a trumpet battle. And, when we did, he would kick my ass. That was the thing, you had to be on your shit. You didn’t know if Roy would show up. But you did know that when he did you would have a battle on your hands.

He just really lived the music. Even to the end as he was slowing down a little bit, he was still out there really playing. He is special to me. Without him, I wouldn’t be playing this music. I don’t know what I would be doing, but I definitely would not be playing this music.

TJG: Do you see a connection between your work with hip hop artists over the years—on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (Interscope), with Kool AD on Origami Harvest (Blue Note), and others—to Roy’s music with the Soulquarians and his RH Factor?

AA: I think what Roy knew was that it is all the same. Black music is ultimately all the same as it is all born from the same place. It is like a tree with branches. The branches may look slightly different but it is ultimately one tree. If you look at the 1970s with Herbie and the Headhunters, Weather Report, and all those things that were happening and then listen to hip hop coming out of the 1980s, it all makes sense. It is a natural progression. I think Roy was so great on those projects because he was so great at all the other stuff, playing blues and all types of black music. So, I think that is kind of what I am trying to get at too. I am just playing black music, I am just playing music. I am not dividing up into categories. So, for me, I could write a whole essay showing similarities in the music of D’Angelo and Bobby Timmons. Or Mahalia Jackson and Summer Walker. Or Johnny Hartman and Frank Ocean. I can see the links between them.

TJG: What can you tell me about the first time you visited The Jazz Gallery?

AA: I believe the first time I played there was with Yosvanny Terry. After the performance, Rio Sakairi asked me if I wanted to bring my own group. My first gig as a leader at the Gallery was with Tim Greene, Robert Glasper, John Sullivan on bass, and Jonathan Blake on drums. Though I had done gigs as a leader in the Bay Area before, it was my first as a leader in New York. I played there a few other times as well.

TJG: What is your most memorable moment at The Jazz Gallery? 

AA: I’m not sure I can narrow it down to a particular memory as there are so many vivid ones.

Overall, the Gallery created a community of artists. It was a place for everyone to communicate and I am sure these interactions generated a lot of interesting projects. The community was also multi-generational. I was one of the younger people and you’d see Jason Moran and Vijay [Iyer] and other cats there that I’d listened to on recordings. I remember just walking in there with the feeling of not knowing who you were going to see. But you always knew the music was going to be killing.

Then there was the Gallery’s amazing programming. For a while, they had a duo piano series. But one of the most interesting was Roy’s trumpet series where he would basically play with whoever his favorite trumpet players were at the moment. If you read through the list today, you would notice he picked a lot of musicians who are on the scene now; me, Jonathan Finlayson, Darren Barrett, Keyon Harrold, and Avishai Cohen were all among those selected. The series was partly trumpet battles with Roy but also learning experiences. Roy would mentor you and show you what it took to play on his level. You would stand next to him and watch him play some of the most amazing shit that you have ever heard. Even Nicholas Payton did a concert with Roy there. My two heroes were going at it! Nick played so hard that night it was ridiculous.

For a year or two, the Gallery also used to host jam sessions. Sometimes the rhythm section would be Gregory Hutchinson or Nasheet [Waits] on drums, Eric McPherson on bass, and Jason or Vijay on piano. I mean, that would be your house rhythm section [laughing]. It was fucking amazing. The music was sort of everything other than swing or bebop that was out there. It was completely other shit that was happening. And, honestly, everybody was there; Glasper was there and Bilal would come. Anyone that was sort of on the scene and considered creative was in that space during that time period. I guarantee it affected them and helped them musically. I remember hearing the craziest stuff and the jamming musicians would be hitting! You weren’t just up there playing a couple of chords. People were putting their all into it, up there sweating and hitting to really try to fully express themselves.

In terms of my developing as an artist or musician, these times at The Jazz Gallery were probably one of the most formative periods in my life. I have a lot of fond memories of the Gallery. I am very thankful they were around and that Rio gave me a chance. I am also grateful they are still around. I am sure a lot of my peers and contemporaries who had the same opportunities in that space are as well.