Live recordings at the legendary Village Vanguard include the memorable Sonny Rollins late 1950s outing on Blue Note, the 1961 Bill Evans sets and an early 1960s John Coltrane tenure that was later expanded into a box set. Interestingly, lead trumpeters have tended not to figure in live performances (though many have performed there live) with Miles Davis recording in 1965 at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago and Freddie Hubbard with a blister performance entitled, ‘Night of the Cookers’, over two mid-1960s Blue Note albums. The emergence of Ambrose Akinmusire as a new talent on the block was heralded by a fine debut in 2011 for Blue Note, ‘When the heart emerges glistening’, which was rapturously received.
In actual fact, the trumpeter has recorded just two albums for Blue Note as a leader up until the new album, the last being in 2014 with the critically acclaimed, ‘The imagined savior is far easier to paint’, while elsewhere as a sideman he has featured on the album, ‘Rising Grace’, a 2016 ECM recording with Wolfgang Muthspiel. Born and raised in Oakland, California, Akinmusire pitches his sound in the mid-1960s post-bop idiom with a strong adventurous streak that recalls the young Freddie Hubbard. The music in general on the live performance is quite introspective in tone, with the short intermezzo number and ballad, ‘Purple’, typifying the atmosphere that reigns.
Surrounded by his long-term band comprising Sam Harris on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass and Justin Brown on drums, Akinmusire varies the length of his all original compositions between the shorter three to four minute pieces to much more intense and lengthier numbers that veer between twelve to fourteen minutes and one wonders whether with experience, these will become more concise and ultimately more digestible to the listener. The titles remain ever inventive and Akinmusire is certainly in a deeply creative phase of his career that should be encouraged as far as possible.
That said, there is much to admire in the interplay between trumpeter and pianist on the downtempo, ‘Moment in between the rest (to curve an ache)’ and here Harris plays a pivotal role with a simple riff that is repeated. Meanwhile on another laid back piece, ‘A song to exhale (diver song)’, it is the interaction between Raghavan and Harris that impresses. This is undoubtedly a band that are comfortable in each other’s presence. A somewhat freer sounding, ‘Brooklyn (ODB)’ has something of a jam session feel with fine playing from Harris. As for Akinmusire, he is at his most lyrical on the melancholic, ‘Response’, with the pianist seemingly influenced by both Andrew Hill and Cecil Taylor, while the leader stretches out with an extended solo on the first CD opening number, ‘Maurice and Michael (sorry I didn’t say hello)’.
Arguably, Akinmusire’s compositional talents might be enhanced by the addition of either another brass player (saxophone more specifically), or even a vibes player. Otherwise, this is a young performer with enormous potential and the mere fact that he has been allowed to record a double CD live at a venue as prestigious as the Village Vanguard bears testimony to the faith that the re-activated Blue Note label have placed in him. A brief set of recent UK dates included two nights at Ronnie Scott’s followed by the ever inventive Wigan Jazz Festival, which has also hosted the UK only gig of Branford Marsalis and Kurt Elling. Full marks to the Wigan organising team for their outstanding endeavour to bring top quality jazz to the north-west.