|Ambrose Akinmusire, Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2014|
Photo credit: © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk . All Rights Reserved
Ambrose Akinmusire will be playing three UK dates this month: the trumpeter and his band will be at Love Supreme on Saturday 4th July (Big Top stage) and Pizza Express Dean Street on 14th & 15th July. Sandie Safont met him backstage at the Koa Jazz festival in Montpellier (France) last April. Their discussion touched on figures as diverse as Joni Mitchell and Kenny Wheeler. He also shared memories of his teachers, Laurie Frink (1951-2013) and Lew Soloff (1944-2015):
LondonJazz News: The set you played tonight had some new material, and also a quartet version of your last album. Keeping your music organic while on tour can be quite a challenge …
Ambrose Akinmusire : It’s more about the challenge in growing as an artist. I just never want to get into the habit of creating an album and then going out and trying to play the album on tour because that’s not really possible. Imagine Jackson Pollock doing a painting and then going around to each date and each country and trying to re-create this painting.
It’s not really possible and that’s not what I’m really here for. I’m just trying to commit myself to this craft every day and get better and better and I don’t know how re- creating something that you did yesterday is really a part of that. Sometimes it can be, if you’re developing that thing but right now I’m more about writing and trying to develop the band and develop myself as a composer and as a player.
The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier To Paint came out a year ago, which means that it was recorded a year and a half ago and that I probably wrote those tunes two and a half years ago. I’m definitely not the same person that I was then.
LJN : ‘Music isn’t just about music, it’s about life’, some say. It’s amazing how life can impact your music and vice versa.
AA : Absolutely. Music is also about trying to express these things that aren’t easy to express. Trying to express the things that we can’t see. Trying to put them into some sort of physical form.
LJN : Are you going to record the new tunes we heard tonight?
AA : Maybe. But you know, in between albums there’s a lot of material that never gets recorded because I’m always writing and trying to develop the band. There are tunes that we were playing when we recorded the last album that we still haven’t recorded. I’ve also written music for a big band and a double quartet – a string quartet and a quartet – so, it’s a lot of music.
LJN : Is orchestral writing the natural progression for you as a composer, then?
AA : I would love to write for an orchestra, tour an orchestra and tour a string quartet and I have a lot of music for these things but I’m seen as a young guy, especially in jazz, where you have to graduate in these other areas. There’s a whole line of people who have to wait for them to get older and I understand it and I’m ok with that.
LJN : The ‘young player’ that you are has developed a sound and a style of his own. In terms of musical influences, who do you look up to the most?
AA : My number one influence in everything is Joni Mitchell.
LJN : And one can see why. The voice is very central to your work and your elaborated song titles show your love for words and poetry. And so, it’s no coincidence that you’ve collaborated with Becca Stevens on your last album, as she’s very often hailed as ‘the new Joni’.
AA : Definitely. In my generation, Becca is probably the most committed to the art form. She really breathes and lives the music. I try to hear everything as a voice and I’m very lucky to have people like Walter (Smith III) and Sam (Harris) who play like vocalists.
I’ve always been drawn to the trumpeters who didn’t get too much attention. The trumpet is such a hard instrument. Right now I’m getting a lot of attention so it’s easy for me to sit down and practice because I know everybody’s gonna hear me but what about these people who practice every day into their 70s and never got heard ?
That’s real committment. I’m thinking Marcus Belgrave, Charles Tolliver or even Dupree Bolton – who went to jail for a while. Those kind of guys who were really studious from the beginning to the end and who are one the best trumpet players but never got the attention.
LJN : Charles Tolliver has been getting more recognition recently – Gilles Peterson curated a Strata-East all stars evening at the Barbican last March. A belated but welcome recognition of a career spanning 50 years.
AA : Yeah, that’s super late. There was a point back in the 70s when Charles Tolliver was, in my opinion, just as good as Woody Shaw and Freddie and all these guys who were really getting attention. Also, during that time when Freddie started to do these LA studio sessions, Charles Tolliver stuck to his thing so, even when Wynton came along and said : ‘hey, we’re going back’, they said : ‘no, forward.’ and I think that’s really admirable and beautiful.
LJN : You’ve studied with the late Laurie Frink and Lew Soloff. How influential were they in your approach to your instrument, music and life?
AA : I studied with Lew before I studied with Laurie. The lessons with Lew were quite epic : we would sit in his drive way and he would make me listen to Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way and I would be so mad because I just wanted to learn how to play high notes from him but he would sit me down and make me listen to the whole album and then we would go and improvise and that would be my lesson. And so, I kept coming back and towards the end of the year I was like : ‘Ah, I’m getting it!’ because it was just that record and Lew was trying to get me to show my stuff out and listen to the beauty of things and that was his high note lesson. And then, at our last lesson, he gave me some exercises for my range. But for a whole year, we just sat in his drive way listening to In A Silent Way!
And Laurie, wow, I don’t even know what to say about her. I mean, I wouldn’t be playing trumpet without Laurie. I studied with her for four or five years. She was like a mother to me. Out of everybody, I think I’ve studied the most with her. It got to a point where it was really like counselling. I would just go in and we would talk about trumpet for ten minutes but the rest of the lesson she would give me life advice. Even after graduating, I started gigging and I would call her whenever I had problems with my chops and she was like a doctor. And she could really play! There was this one time when she asked me to bend on a high E and I said to her I had been trying for the last six months and it just was impossible. She looked at me dead in the eye and just played a bended E! (He sings the note). Just like that. I mean, cold. We had been ten minutes into the lesson. No effort, no crack. Just perfect. Looking at me the whole time, like saying : ‘I know you bet I couldn’t play it!’
She was so amazing and such an inspiration for me.
LJN : Do you still practice those exercices?
AA : Well, fortunately and unfortunately it built my chops, so I try to do other things but I always go back to her exercises because they’re the foundation.
LJN : A few words on another trumpet giant, Kenny Wheeler, who passed away recently ? Has he ever been an influence on you ?
AA : I really like his Music for small and large ensembles and Angel Song and Gnu High but he’s never been an influence on me. I think what people hear in my playing that’s also in his playing is Booker Little – who was a huge influence on me and I know he was an influence on him, too.
LJN : And finally, what does being a Blue Note artist mean to you ?
AA : It’s just great to be on the same label that all my heroes were on. I have no problem being in line with the tradition. And the tradition of this music is looking to the future. And all the masters did that. Paying tribute to what came before while looking forward. It seems like a simple concept but a lot of people don’t seem to know about it and don’t talk about it.
This interview was originally conducted for Citizen Jazz, our French partners, and will be soon published on their site in French
More tour dates on ambroseakinmusire.com/
Love Supreme Festival
Pizza Express Live