Measuring the heart
The great figures of jazz are the people who, as the decades pass, you can set your compass by. For me, in my generation, that meant Miles, Coltrane, Ornette. It’s always tempting to think that they don’t make people like that any more, but it’s not true. And I’m thinking that the trumpeter, composer and bandleader Ambrose Akinmusire might be one of them.
Akinmusire’s music has a moral heft that makes it a good place to turn to in times like these. Not many artists can so successfully maintain a commitment to beauty while bringing intellect and rigour to bear on the issues of the day, never letting us forget what got him (and us) here: the history of African Americans.
In 2014, on The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint, the second of his five Blue Note albums, Akinmusire included a piece called “Rollcall for Those Absent”, in which a small child recites the names of black victims of police homicide, including Amadou Diallo and Trayvon Martin. It still rings in my head every time a new atrocity occurs. Throughout that and his other albums, even when there is no explicit text, a sense of mourning is mixed with the celebration.
On his new one, called On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment, that underlying emotion is redoubled. Even when this music is at its most complex, rippling and sparkling with detail, it moves on an undertow of the blues. The album begins with Akinmusire’s beautifully pure natural trumpet sound, all alone, introducing a track called “Tide of Hyacinth” which moves through dazzling interplay with the members of his regular quartet — Sam Harris (piano), Harish Raghavan (bass) and Justin Brown (drums) — and incorporates a recitation in Yoruba by the Cuban-born singer and percussionist Jesús Díaz. That’s a taste of the various approaches explored here, which range from a lovely little song pairing the voice of Genevieve Artadi (the singer with the LA electro-funk duo Knower) with Akinmusire’s Fender Rhodes piano, through the Monkish angularity of “Mr Roscoe” and the tender balladry of “Reset (Quiet Victories & Celebrated Defeats)” to a sombre, hymn-like dedication to the late Roy Hargrove, whose work with D’Angelo and others paved the way for Akinmusire’s appearance on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
One track, only half a minute long, is for unaccompanied trumpet, the squeezed half-valve sounds reminiscent of Rex Stewart. Akinmusire goes that far back, and all the way forward. I don’t know of a trumpeter from the generations after Don Cherry who uses vocalised effects so brilliantly. He does it again on the penultimate track, “Blues (We Measure the Heart With a Fist)”, where the notes are compressed so tightly that they can barely escape over Harris’s damped notes before the mood switches into a passage of fantastic trumpet/bass/drums improvisation that seems to explore a new way of swinging.
The album ends with the ringing, carefully-spaced chords of the Fender Rhodes, bringing the album to a close with a short piece titled “Hooded Procession (Read the Names Aloud)”, the latest in Akinmusire’s series of threnodies for the victims of police violence. The timeliness of this does not require emphasis. Once again, he has created a soundtrack for our time that will live long beyond its moment.
* On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment is released on the Blue Note label.