Ambrose Akinmusire – Origami Harvest
(Blue Note 002866202. CD review by Jon Turney)
Imagine making music to accompany a roll call of young black men and women killed by supposed law-enforcers. Imagine living in a society where such a list grows steadily.
An American musician has no need to imagine: it is their world. Ambrose Akinmusire’s searing new album is one response. Origami, he says, is a reference to the folding of people, not paper, Harvest to repetition, not plenitude.
Repetition has a place in the music, too. The naming of the dead is a device Akinmusire has felt compelled to use before. But how to inflect a lament when the conflict that brought the casualties stretches unbroken into the future? Perhaps that more complex challenge calls for more complex scoring from a composer?
The pieces here are certainly densely written, laying out parts for a bold alliance of the Mivos String Quartet, rapper Victor Vasquez (Kool A.D.) regular Akinmusire cohort Sam Harris on piano and Marcus Gilmore on drums. The sound is a rich brocade of contemporary classical, fluid hip-hop, funk, and jazz at its most flexible, each enriching the others.
The leader’s trumpet is eloquent and incisive in several sections, but is not the main event. Vasquez is in the foreground for appreciable stretches, with arrestingly incantatory words, sometimes allusive, sometimes direct appraisals of the USA (“savage histories, brutal legacies, illusory democracies, feudal tendencies…”). The strings wax and wane, now elegiac, now almost savage, with some of the most attacking bowing you ever heard. Gilmore is remarkable throughout, whether nailing beats or furnishing intense but controlled commentary on everything else.
In the absence of a bass pulse, it’s tempting to say the drummer binds all together, but that’s not quite right. The singular mix here does work, because of the composer’s strength of vision. But the forces in play work against each other as well as in mutual reinforcement.
Akinmusire’s comment in the press release is worth noting, citing a series of oppositions and how: “Originally, I thought I put them all so close together that it would highlight the fact that there isn’t as much space between these supposed extremes as we thought, but I don’t know if that’s actually the conclusion of it.”
Well, no. And that seems fitting. Smoothing out the tensions between all the disparate elements he deploys would be a less effective response to the social rifts that charge the words here.
This is not music of consolation or commiseration. It is often an edgy, unsettling, listen, sometimes conveying an almost resigned defiance. The listener is afloat, but in deep water, alive with cross-currents even when apparently calm, and in danger of succumbing to a powerful undertow of melancholy.
It grips, because the unexpected collaborators here are emotionally as well as musically in tune. And because along with depth of emotion they all at times convey a sense of danger. It’s the danger, for some, of being American. But it is manifest in many other countries too. Probably including yours.
LINKS: Live review: Akinmusire Quartet at Stadtgarten in Cologne in May 2018