Skidmore Jazz Institute director Todd Coolman’s introduction of Ambrose Akinmusire contained a really telling statement: “This music is fresh and exciting, and I won’t say I’m completely familiar with it… but my nose tells me there’s something going on!” Other than quoting well-worn lyrics from Buffalo Springfield, I can’t think of a more concise way to describe the mind-bending music Akinmusire and his quintet threw down on the crowd that filled Ladd Concert Hall on Tuesday night.
The bell of the Bay Area native’s trumpet was right up against the mic as he played in the clear to open the show, but no sound came from the house speakers. Not a problem: Zankel’s wizard acoustics sent his piercing sound flying around the high-ceilinged room. More than few of us sat back in our seats in respect – not only at Akinmusire’s power, but at the unconventional route he was already taking. This wasn’t traditional jazz trumpet by a long shot; it was closer to a classical vibe, but there was enough avant-garde in there to noticeably warp the sound as pianist Sam Harris filled underneath. It was an awesome combination of chops, control, and a genuine sense of direction, even if we didn’t know where Akinmusire was going. He did, though, and that’s all that mattered.
The rest of the band slid in one by one as the piece turned into a striking tone poem, a gutsy choice for an opening number. The piece eventually went bopping… Well, drummer Justin Brown and bassist Harish Raghavan did, anyway. Akinmusire and tenorman Walter Smith III were playing charts that were very much outside the box. It was less a trading session as it was a conversation between two people who care passionately about the subject. This dynamic repeated itself throughout the ground-shaking 90-minute set, and we saw some of the same thing from the rhythm section, as Brown and Raghavan locked themselves into a separate dynamic that just happened to dovetail with whatever the front line was doing.
The second Jazz Institute alum to appear during this year’s concert series, Smith’s post-SJI Capital Region debut was with Terence Blanchard at Skidmore’s under-refurbishment Filene Recital Hall. My memory of Smith from that night was of a technically solid player with loads of chops but very little in the way of presence. That memory was deleted by the towering performance I saw at Zankel. Smith can (and did) blow strong like Akinmusire, but he also sculpted a wonderfully warm solo during the softer middle section of “Snake Bite.” There’s a confidence and a swagger to Smith that really takes his stuff to the next level, and the chemistry he shares with Akinmusire added appreciably to multifaceted compositions whose inherent sense of drama and dialogue come closer to opera than they do to jazz.
For me, Harris’ best moment came during his in-the-clear solo on the brooding encore “Tear-Stained Suicide Manifesto.” (“It has a happy ending,” Akinmusire laughingly assured us. “Nobody dies!”) Harris may have had other great moments, but I couldn’t hear them because the drums completely drowned him out. There’s no question Brown can bring the noise, but where Eric McPherson’s fills accented everything Linda Oh did last Saturday night, Brown was nothing but death-defying acrobatics that did nothing but wear, so when he did get a solo of his own, all he could do was turn up the volume. Raghavan displayed more of the thrilling resonance he contributed to Capital Region appearances with Kurt Elling and Eric Harland, but he had the misfortune of following fellow bassist Oh’s epic performance. So even though Raghavan’s performance generated no complaints, it still paled in comparison.
Ambrose Akinmusire’s music is a rich meal to digest, especially when you’re not sure where some of the ingredients come from. But then it’s wrong to try to “understand” music like this (or any music, for that matter), because the only person who really, truly understands it is the person who wrote it. All the rest of us can do is process how it makes us feel, and on this evening, I was absolutely thrilled. I love surprises, and I love when my expectations of a musician are completely surpassed. I got both those things at Skidmore, and that makes me smile.
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk