Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet
(Ronnie Scott’s, 26th March 2012. Review by Alex Roth)
Ambrose Akinmusire’s ascent to the summit of the international jazz scene has been watched over by some of the guiding lights of creative jazz, including Steve Coleman, in whose band Five Elements he played while barely out of high school, and Jason Moran, who co-produced and guested on the trumpeter’s Blue Note debut When the Heart Emerges Glistening, a title that aptly and poetically hints at the passion and purity of expression at the core of the trumpeter’s sound.
Akinmusire’s quintet has developed a depth of ensemble empathy that for once justifies the use of phrases like the “collective spirit” and “the whole being greater than the sum of its parts”. That the US bandleader has achieved this level of maturity while still in his twenties is a remarkable feat, and so it was no wonder that Ronnie Scott’s, presenting the only London date of his current European tour, was sold out.
It must surely help that the musicians in his band have been playing together since their school days, yet Akinmusire has said of his partnership with saxophonist Walter Smith III that “he and I never have any musical conversations. It feels like he’s part of my brain and I’m part of his. I know exactly what he’s thinking, what note he’s going to end on, when he’s going to play something, when he’s going to stop.”
On last night’s evidence, he may well have been talking about any one of his bandmates: drummer Justin Brown, who with his nuanced touch and explosive punctuations was the perfect foil to both Akinmusire’s hyper-agile phrasing and Smith’s earthy, flowing lines. Or bassist Harish Raghavan, whose thundering pizzicato or delicate arco simultaneously rooted and propelled the group’s explorations. Or pianist Sam Harris, who subtly mediated between the rhythm section’s pulsing ebb and flow and the horn players’ often blistering statements.
There were echoes of legendary jazz combos in the group’s sound: the intensity of Coltrane’s classic quartet playing their hearts out for each other, the loose phrasing of the Coleman-Cherry front line, and bands led by some of Akinmusire’s more adventurous Blue Note predecessors like Andrew Hill, Wayne Shorter and Eric Dolphy (whose characteristic intervallic leaps and guttural phrasing may have been an influence on Akinmusire’s own playing). At slower tempi, and in the space Akinmusire afforded his bandmates, one could also sense the kind of turn-on-a-dime focus characteristic of Miles’ bands from the ’60s and ’70s, the leader sometimes standing aside to let the music develop and occasionally stoking up the action with provocative interjections.
But these references have clearly been creatively absorbed, so that tradition has become subservient to personality. Nevertheless, Akinmusire is keen to remind audiences of the lineage that his burnished tone and playfully articulated phrasing are helping to extend, including on the album a lone standard (the aptly named “What’s New”) and rounding off an exhilarating evening with a solo rendition of the bebop anthem “All the Things You Are”.
Support came from a trio led by pianist Robert Mitchell, whose rhythmically sophisticated compositions were expertly dealt with by bassist Tom Mason and drummer Richard Spaven.