AMBROSE AKINMUSIRE with George Grella
Ambrose Akinmusire is the top trumpeter in this year's DownBeat magazine Critics Poll—his mysterious and beautiful January set at the Winter Jazzfest, a penumbra of dark and compelling sensations that enveloped the Irving Plaza crowd, earned my vote. Winner of the 2007 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Competition, his series of albums on Blue Note records, When the Heart Emerges Glistening (2011), The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint (2014), A Rift in Decorum: Live at the Village Vanguard (2017), Origami Harvest (2018), and the newly released on the tender spot of every calloused moment (with pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan, drummer Justin Brown, and some guests), have built an outstanding and personal world of modern jazz, classical chamber music, and hip hop that is tethered to all those genes, but spins in its own orbit. He spoke over the phone from his home in Oakland in late July.
George Grella (Rail): I first want to talk to you more about the technical side. This new album seems like a really big departure in terms of form from the music that you’ve put out before. Is that something that you’re consciously working on?
Ambrose Akinmusire: Yes and no. I am very aware of what I’m putting out and the order I’m putting those things out, but when I’m creating, like when I’m writing the songs, when I’m developing the songs with my band I’m just kind of letting it happen, so I think it’s pretty natural, but this album, it was a departure from my last few albums but in my eyes it’s really a sequel to the first album that I did on Blue Note.
Rail: Yeah, that’s fascinating to hear that. Tell me more about that.
Akinmusire: It’s on every level—micro, macro—with the sequencing. Even something as small as playing an intro to the album, like something I did on my first album. Also, the album cover: I’m cut, clean-shaven in a suit [on the first album] and this one, you know, I have my locks back, I’m in a hoodie, and I haven’t shaved in many months [laughter]. But on every level, I feel like it’s a sequel, and even in terms of acoustic… My other albums have had other features but this one is pretty much, for the most part up until “Genevieve” and a brief moment from “Aces,” it’s an acoustic album.
Rail: That’s interesting to hear and I want to ask you about some of those details. It’s one thing for me as a listener to hear these records and then for you to describe certain things that you’re thinking opens up a whole new way of listening to what you’re doing. So it seems like when you’re making one of these records, are you looking at it like it’s a record album? Or are you looking at it more like it’s a large-scale form that could happen in person as well?
Akinmusire: Again, yes and no. I really love making albums and I love using the studio as an instrument itself. So when I make an album, I do focus on being a little bit more—I don’t know what the right word is. I don’t want to say precise, but maybe in the performance I’m playing at 99 percent just because I know there’s something about tape and recording stuff, when you push a little bit too hard, it can break, so there’s that part of it and…I don’t know but I will say that it’s interesting going into a studio with a band, like really a band—we’ve been playing together for 10 years so a lot of it what we [do] live is also captured in the studio.
Rail: So even though you have all these special capabilities available to you in a recording studio, you’re still thinking in terms of the kind of real-time live performance being captured.
Akinmusire: I am and sometimes, especially with this album because it’s a sequel to the first one, I kind of had a sequence in mind so I played that way. “Tide of Hyacinth,” I definitely knew would be the opening track and so I wanted something that would be a little more energetic and I knew I eventually would have a singer overdub a part on there. Yeah, so definitely in the sequencing on this one, but my last album, I recorded that in one day and spent six months editing it in the studio so that process was completely different.
Rail: So when you’re talking about editing, is that taking out the best take or splicing together different takes and things like that, are you doing the kind of Glenn Gould thing?
Akinmusire: [Laughs] On the last album yes, on this album not so much. On this album it was more taking the takes that worked and often that’s not always the best take. It’s the take that fits best in the sequence.
Rail: So you’ve got the individual songs or tracks, whatever you want to call them, but you’re also thinking about how they best fit together on a larger scale.
Akinmusire: Always. For all of my albums, I left a lot of stuff on the cutting board that probably had better solos or this and that, but it just didn’t fit in the flow of the album or wasn’t really related to it where I felt like I was as an artist.
Rail: Yeah, I gotta say I’ve never heard this from a jazz musician. It’s fascinating to hear. One of the things you’re thinking of, when you’re working in the recording studio and using it as an instrument, is that part of it as well? That the recording studio allows you to manipulate the versions of different pieces to fit them all together?
Akinmusire: I’m not really cutting and splicing so much, it’s really more of complete takes, but what the studio does allow me to do is sort of highlight certain things, like overdubbing keyboards or vocals, different things like that. It’s almost like you have the opportunity to make the music a caricature of itself.
Rail: And then when you take the same material that you’re playing in the studio or material that you’ve been playing in live situations before you recorded, do you think of it differently when you’re on stage in front of people?
Akinmusire: No. Again, I think my situation is a little different than the average improvised setting because I have a band and I’ve had the same band for 10 years so everytime we play it’s completely different. I think I can speak for everybody in the band and say that we’re really trying to get to the point where we’re not thinking, we’re just being used to just playing. I know everybody says that, but I really do think that in this band, we achieve that.
Rail: Right. I think from the listener’s standpoint—I’m putting things together in my memory and your live performance, it has a very similar kind of quality and texture to this new album even though the situation is different, but now it makes total sense with what you’re explaining to me.
Akinmusire: Yeah, I think in this band, everybody is such an amazing musician and at any time an ego can get involved and anybody can take over the show, but it’s really a band that believes in collective expression.
Rail: And do you get surprised by some of the stuff the band plays?
Akinmusire: Yes, when I listen back, but I don’t often listen back [laughter]. I’m kind of bad with that. I mean I listen of course when I’m picking the takes, but it’s almost—you know, sometimes I forget that I play trumpet or that I’m a musician, so it’s all shocking [laughter]. It’s a weird thing to put an instrument up to your mouth and improvise in front of people, you feel like a daredevil like you're doing a tightrope act—you really are! But you’re doing it with three other people on the same rope, you know?
Rail: One thing I’ve realized I’m trying to get a handle on is what makes your records sound so different from everybody else’s [laughter]. The experience of hearing you and the band play live is also so different from any ensemble and there’s—
Akinmusire: Thank you. That’s a great compliment.
Rail: Oh, I mean you really do, because I can’t explain it to myself, you know thinking critically that makes it even more fascinating. That’s just my personal feeling, but you—
Akinmusire: Okay, I can tell you this, and it’s really simple. I think, when you hear my band, you hear four people listening to everybody else more intently than themselves.
Rail: Okay, yeah.
Akinmusire: It’s funny because it’s just become a habit, it’s just what it is. Like when someone can’t make a gig and another person steps in, it’s the first thing that they say. They say, “oh wow, you guys are really, really listening to everything,” and you just assume that anything can happen at any moment. Like, yeah we’re playing that song, but if somebody plays one little thing that gestures towards something else then that’s where we are and it’s without judgement, it’s without anything. Like sometimes, someone is playing this song we’ve been playing slow a little bit faster and they play it just because they felt it and that’s what it is. I think that’s what you hear in our band. There are no set rules, there are no set roles, anything could happen from anybody and anytime, and everybody is listening to every single moment.
Rail: Your ensemble has a very deep sound, and I just don’t mean those kind of bass textures, it’s kind of a broad, deep ensemble sound. It sounds a lot bigger than a quartet but still with very specific quartet colors. Is that something you’ve been cultivating or is that just a mix of you and these other players?
Akinmusire: Okay, so you really want to get to the details, [laughs] okay!
Rail: Oh, I love the details [laughs]!
Akinmusire: Let’s do it [laughter]. It’s something I definitely thought about and it's one of the reasons I started playing with a quartet. I like the challenge of that, like how big can I make this ensemble feel with just trumpet? Because you don’t see too many trumpet quartets in the history of jazz.
Akinmusire: You know, you can maybe name four or five of them and those happen by accident. So I wanted to address that challenge and I also wanted to address the challenge of endurance. So yeah, I’ve studied a lot of orchestration, a lot of scores, when I first started because I’ve always been a big Ravel fan, really into Ravel and how much sound he can get out of solo piano. It sounds so much bigger. A lot of stuff that we’re playing like track two, “Yessss,” that part where the bass, he’s actually playing sort of like the tenor voice and not the bass and the piano player is playing and I’m playing a sort of soprano voice, a top voice and it makes it sound a lot bigger because the base is down an octave on the second voice, so just little things like that. I have the piano doubling the trumpet and for some reason that makes it sound bigger. Because my sound is so dark and pianos are usually bright and when you put those two things together it sort of makes it a little bit bigger and also I can get a specific tuning. I like to tune to 442, 443 [Hz].
Rail: Oh! Okay.
Akinmusire: Yeah, because for me, it makes it a lot warmer, a lot bigger. It like sits on top of everything.
Rail: But you keep the piano at the standard 440 tuning right?
Akinmusire: I keep the piano at the standard 440 and that’s where Europe is or a little bit higher. And when we go to Europe, I pull out a little bit, I mean I push in, make it a little bit sharp, I always want to be like a…
Rail: That’s what violinists who play in front of orchestras do a lot just to get that little separation.
Akinmusire: Exactly, so then when you have the piano that’s doubling it, there’s this little rub—it’s not enough to be unpleasant but it gives it a bigger sound.
Rail: It’s great to hear this. It’s fascinating to hear how closely you’re listening to exactly that, like “how do I get the sound that I want to get?” Very cool.
Akinmusire: Yeah trumpet quartet is no joke [laughter], it’s really hard.
Rail: Yeah, you know as a listener, it’s interesting you talk about the piano and the trumpet too because yes, you have a remarkably dark sound, but it seems to me, at least from my psychoacoustic perspective, you kind of darken the piano rather than the piano kind of brightening up your sound.
Akinmusire: Oh, that’s interesting.
Rail: It’s got a very sensual effect, you can really feel it, not just hear it.
Akinmusire: Yeah, well thank you! [Laughs]
Rail: Oh, well thank you [laughter]. I want to ask another thing too about the details of how you guys are making the music together because you’ll play one thing and it’s kind of a four-and-a-half-minute duration and the kind of thing that the listener has really been conditioned to expect in jazz, and then you’ll play a theme maybe 45 seconds and it’s over and you’ll go to something else. What is the thinking behind breaking up that experience?
Akinmusire: It’s just—how do you even say it? You know, I’m really into jiujitsu and if you’re wrestling or grappling with somebody, you don’t want to do the same moves for the same amount of time, you have to do fakes and all this other stuff to keep it interesting, to keep your position. So I kind of think of it like that; not only am I taking people on a ride, but I want to keep their interest. When a track stops, I want them to not know what the hell is coming but also be ready and down for anything that could come next. To maintain that excitement. I also want people to feel a lot, but I also don’t want to bang them over the head with stuff. If we’re talking about sequencing in the album, I want pauses, I want places where people can catch their breath and then I want to take it away and I want to control the way they’re breathing in the song, but I’m thinking about that in the composition and I’m also thinking about that in the larger scale in the sequencing of the album.
Rail: Right, right, yeah. You’re thinking in terms of setting up expectations and then delivering that satisfaction, but beyond just getting to the cadence and getting back to the top.
Akinmusire: Exactly, exactly.
Rail: Okay, okay… you’re playing, you’re making music, the band is making music, you’re playing things, you’ve got an idea in your head, you’ve got a title, so there’s something that you’re thinking about that you want to express to the listener. Do you want it to be really concrete or do you want to leave a lot of room for the listener to have their own reaction?
Akinmusire: Definitely room for the listener to have their own reaction. I think that just goes with my personality. I am totally comfortable with contradiction, and change, you know. What I believed yesterday, I don’t believe today.
Akinmusire: So I really like this idea of returning to something, this object, right now I’ve just been thinking a lot about—so this album, I thought a lot about landmarks. And how these things stay put, but we’re the ones that are actually changing, so we see the thing a little bit differently. So I definitely want to give room for the listener, and that’s why I always have these titles. Some people make fun of me for them, but I want, I try to have titles that can mean so many specific things to me but also leaves room for the listener to have so many meanings, so many varying meanings, over a period of time.
Rail: Yeah, you know, you’re making me think of Ravel, like you say again. Even his most…even things like La valse, okay, it’s a waltz, but there’s so much happening in there.
Akinmusire: There you go.
Rail: And how you feel about how you respond to it, really it’s like, how do you feel on Tuesday, how do you feel on Wednesday.
Akinmusire: Exactly, exactly. And that’s the thing that I also love about Ravel is that it’s almost like he makes… sometimes when you listen to a Ravel piece, for me, I’ll be like man, I don’t remember this song being this slow. And then a couple months later I’ll come back and hear it again and be like, man, this is a lot faster than I remember. It’s almost like he’s found a way to make the music dance to how you’re truly feeling, like tempo, actually.
Rail: Ok, here’s jazz, which was a popular dance music, and then the beboppers come along and they turn it into something more abstract, but it’s still got immediate appeal. You can work in a lot of abstract ideas and musical forms, and expressions and things like that, and also reach into rock and hip hop. Are you trying for that balance?
Akinmusire: Yeah, I mean I think the things that I believe that maybe most people don’t believe or haven’t thought about is that I really see hip hop as jazz. It’s the same thing. So if we just take it from the ’70s and we take it from fusion, the most logical next step is hip hop.
Rail: Yes, yes, yes.
Akinmusire: It really is. It’s not the thing that everybody thinks happens, like going back to playing in the 1950s, somebody pressed rewind, no, no, that kept going into hip hop, and all they’re doing is, you just talked about the elements that made it popular music, are still there. And I think hip hop is one of the most popular genres in the world, and therefore jazz is still very popular. Because people have separated them, when Kendrick Lamar does something, everybody’s head is blown, “I can’t believe that he—!” It’s like, no, it’s logical, like that makes sense [laughs]. This other stuff doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense to all the sudden start playing 1950s jazz, you know [laughs].
Rail: [Laughs] Yeah!
Akinmusire: [Laughs] Yeah. But I still see jazz as popular music, so—
Rail: Do you think that’s part of the generation that you belong to, you’re growing up and hip hop is around you, it’s on the radio, this is the music fabric of society. Is that something that makes it so natural to you compared to people, the musicians and listeners, from previous generations?
Akinmusire: I would think so, yeah. But I think that it’s natural for a few generations before me, it seems like it was very natural for them to come. But also I think in the inner city, especially in the Black community, it’s pretty logical. It’s just what it is. And I think also there’s a direct correlation between jazz, popular hip hop, and gospel music, too.
Rail: What you’re doing, like [drummer and vocalist] Kassa Overall, it just sounds like these things fit together in a much more natural way. Not self-conscious—there’s been good stuff before, but a lot of it has had that kind of self-conscious quality, like let me show you we can make it work, while you and your peers seem to just accept it as a totally natural thing and it sounds easy.
Akinmusire: Yeah, I think the times are changing, you know. I think Kassa and I, I’ve known Kassa since we were in high school. We’re the first generation that… we’re the last generation that grew up without internet.
Rail: Yeah! Good point.
Akinmusire: It’s kind of weird, right? I remember the internet coming out like around the time I was in high school, I think. Like in the mid ’90s… so there’s something. I don’t know how to articulate, but there’s something about that that allows us to have all these other influences and songs that I think maybe generations have to have. But also, we also had iPods. We were the first teenagers with iPods, walking around with thousands of songs at our disposal.
Rail: Yeah, and playlists, no genres.
Akinmusire: Yeah! So it kind of gave way to more of a diversity of music. You could say, “Hey, what are you listening to?” Your friends would give you a thousand songs of Brazilian music, and all the sudden you’re listening to Brazilian music, you know? Also, I think that this is also a generation—especially now because of COVID-19—of collaboration, and cross-genre. And we see, you know, I’m talking even social genre. The trans movement, and all these other ways of being a little bit more equal. The lines are coming down and everything. I think it’s becoming natural for everything, everything is becoming more fluid.
Rail: You sound almost hopeful.
Akinmusire: Um… I am hopeful. Maybe not for my lifetime, but [laughs] yeah. I have a lot of hope in these generations that are coming up. Yeah. They just seem to really be burning all the walls down.