About 10 years ago, when trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire was getting ready to start the Thelonious Monk Institute’s prestigious master’s program, I tried to set up an interview with him to talk about some Bay Area gigs he had coming up. He politely declined, saying he felt that his music hadn’t developed enough to talk about yet.
Now based in Los Angeles, he’s taken much the same approach to his recording career. Rather than jumping into the studio to get his name out there, he has bided his time, waiting until he had something to say.
With his 2011 debut for Blue Note, “When The Heart Emerges Glistening,”
he delivered a poised program of original material, music that bristled with commitment, intelligence and simmering emotion.
His enthralling new album, “the imagined savior is far easier to paint,” comes freighted with an even more evocative title, and represents a leap in creative ambition. The album features settings for string quartet, probing character studies inspired by stories of his own invention and art songs, like “Our Basement” by folk/jazz vocalist Becca Stevens, who sings on the album’s only track not written by Akinmusire.
The trumpeter often composes by writing a title first. Sometimes it’s a name that he supplies with a backstory, and other times it’s a poetic phrase. While he designs his music for his working quintet, Akinmusire isn’t interested in supplying the band with catchy themes or showcases for virtuosic soloing. He wants to paint pictures and tell stories, like on the surprisingly calm “Ceaseless Inexhaustible Child” featuring the craggy soul of Canadian singer/songwriter Cold Speck.
Akinmusire’s trumpet, warm, pliant and deeply burnished, is an expressive match for any of the vocalists. On “The Beauty of Dissolving Portraits,” featuring the OSSO String Quartet and 19-year-old Berkeley flautist Elena Pinderhughes, the pastel wash coheres rather than breaks apart.
In many ways, he’s a proud product of the Bay Area scene. He started immersing himself in jazz through a program at Oakland’s Alice Arts Center run by saxophonist Jessica Jones, another noted Berkeley High alum. Trumpeter Khalil Shaheed provided more information and playing opportunities at the Oaktown Jazz Workshop, and bandleaders Howard Wiley and Marcus Shelby started hiring the teenage trumpeter for gigs.
A full scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music put Akinmusire in the thick of the New York scene, where he thrived. After four years, another scholarship brought him back to the West Coast, where he earned a master’s at the Thelonious Monk Institute’s elite program run by trumpeter Terence Blanchard at the University of Southern California.
What’s most impressive about Akinmusire is that he’s dedicated to a band sound that flows from the musicians who surround him. On “the imagined savior” he is joined by pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan, tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III and drummer Justin Brown, a tremendously resourceful drummer who’s also a Berkeley High grad.
For jazz fans who often despair about the music’s miniscule market share, the search is always on for a figure who will lead jazz back to the center of American culture. Though he’s sometimes been cast in the role, Akinmusire isn’t letting anyone paint him into a corner. “the imagined savior” is nothing like one might expect from jazz’s hottest young trumpeter, which is to say it’s a true reflection of Akinmusire’s expansive creative vision.