Jazz Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire on Becoming the Instrument

Ambrose Akinmusire performs at Dazzle on Thursday, June 22.
Ambrose Akinmusire performs at Dazzle on Thursday, June 22. Pierrick Guidou
There’s some virtuoso playing by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and his quartet on the new double album A Rift in Decorum: Live at the Village Vanguard. But Akinmusire says he doesn’t remember a lot about playing during his stint at New York’s legendary jazz venue last year.

“When I’m playing, it’s like I’m not there, really,” Akinmusire says. “That’s the way it usually happens with this band,” which includes pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Justin Brown. “But I think everybody is reaching these – when we’re at our best – we’re reaching these levels where you really are transcending or you’re not there…. I think we’re just trying to reach the point where we actually don’t feel there. We actually are becoming the instrument.”

The 35-year-old Akinmusire considers himself a conduit through which the music passes.

“That’s the whole idea,” he says. “You spend time in the practice room and reading and doing all these other things, so that when it comes inside of you, it doesn’t rattle against anything that stops it from coming out of your instrument. Sometimes that’s a technical limitation. Sometimes that’s a belief that you may have. Sometimes it’s your ego. It’s all these things.”

And when he’s on the bandstand, he says, he rarely thinks about what he’s playing. It’s in the practice room where he thinks about what he's practicing and what he’s studying. He equates playing to having a conversation, where he doesn’t think about what he’s going to say — it just happens.

“There’s this other mind that allows us to be able to put words together,” Akinmusire says. “It allows us to be able to reference things and all this other stuff. And that’s the way music is. You just speak or the spirit comes through you and that speaks. But, of course, you have to have knowledge and have to know proper grammar. You have to have all these things. It’s the same thing with music.”

Although Akinmusire might not remember a lot about playing the music on A Rift in Decorum, his third Blue Note release, he says it was strangely comfortable being at the Village Vanguard.

“The staff there and the people there have a way of making it feel like music is supposed to be made in there, so it was comfortable,” he says. “Not comfortable in a bad way, but comfortable in a good way, where it’s like you’re definitely here to try to reach to the highest levels of this thing.”

Since Akinmusire has been playing with Brown for two decades and Harris and Raghavan for around ten years, there’s some superb interplay that’s partly the result of the group’s long history together, but Akinmusire says it’s not because the musicians are always comfortable playing together.

“We definitely challenge each other,” he says. “I think we are comfortable in the challenge of this. We know that there is no end; there’s no top to any of this. There’s only the submitting to the higher thing and reaching people and moving people and moving this music along. It’s just like a basketball team, right? Everybody, of course, is out there to win, and if you lose, then, okay, that’s all good, but we left our heart on the floor.”

Akinmusire and his quartet explore extremes on A Rift in Decorum, from the vigorous opener “Maurice & Michael (Sorry I Didn't Say Hello)” and circuitous "Trumpet Sketch (Milky Pete)” to gorgeous ballads like “Moment in Between the Rest (To Curve an Ache)” and “A Song to Exhale (Diver Song),” which Akinmusire says he wanted to serve as a moment for the audience to just exhale — "and also for us, the musicians who are performing it, just to really exhale,” he says. “The strangest thing happens.… I don’t announce a lot of my tunes. It’s very rare on stage that I announce them, but you’ll hear people exhaling or breathing that tune. It’s really interesting.”

He adds that the fourteen new compositions that make up A Rift in Decorum tell many stories and that the song titles usually encompass the story or a story that he’s trying to tell.

“It’s almost like the title is this soaking rag that you can squeeze out, and all the meanings come out of that soaking rag — the meanings being the water as opposed to it being just one meaning,” he says. “And that’s what’s so hard about having a title. And a lot of people give me flack about my titles. I really am trying to put as much as I can into that rag, and then be very specific. It could mean this; it could mean that. All those are things that I could mean.”

Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet, 6:30 & 9 p.m. Thursday, June 22, Dazzle, 303-839-5102, $25-$30.
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon