by Ian Mann
March 29, 2012
Ian Mann enjoys an evening of excellent contemporary jazz from both sides of the Atlantic.
Ambrose Akinmusire Quintet / Robert Mitchell 3io, Colston Hall, Bristol, 27/03/2012.
One of the highlights of my visit to the 2011 London Jazz Festival was the appearance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall of an international quintet assembled by veteran French multi reeds player Michel Portal. The American contingent included the young trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire who played quite brilliantly and I promised myself that if Akinmusire ever brought his own group to the UK I would make a point of seeing them.
Fast forward a few months and the fulfilment of a wish with this third date of a brief UK tour featuring Akinmusire with his regular working group featuring tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, pianist Sam Harris, Harish Raghavan on bass and Justin Brown at the drums. Although born in Oakland, California Akinmusire is now based in New York and his quintet includes some of that city’s finest players. I’d previously heard Smith and Brown on record before (Smith with bassist Michael Janisch and trumpeter Terence Blanchard and Brown with bassist Carlo De Rosa and pianist Gerald Clayton) but this set represented a welcome opportunity to see both in the flesh for the first time. Like their leader both were suitably impressive.
Akinmusire, almost thirty, seemed to emerge fully formed with his highly acclaimed début album for Blue Note Records “When The Heart Emerges Glistening” (2011) but he had been honing his craft for some ten years since his initial discovery by M Base pioneer Steve Coleman who featured Akinmusire with his Five Elements band. Akinmusire’s list of sideman credits is extensive including work with his band-mate Smith, saxophonist David Binney and pianists Jason Moran, Vijay Iyer, Aaron Parks and the British born John Escreet. A frequent award winner Akinmusire was awarded the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Prize.
“When The Heart…” was a great critical success and in terms of his UK profile Akinmusire’s sell out performances at Ronnie Scott’s during 2011 did much to consolidate his already burgeoning reputation. In other words there’s been a bit of a buzz about this young man and a turn out of around 150 knowledgeable jazz fans at the Colston’s Hall 2 demonstrated that news of his considerable abilities has spread beyond London. This was a younger than average jazz audience and I suspect that in this case not all of the more youthful crowd members were necessarily music students. Akinmusire seems to have a degree of street cred.
“When The Heart…” received considerable praise for the quality of Akinmusire’s writing, particularly with regard to the high melodic content of his compositions. However here in a single set lasting a little over an hour the focus was on new material, much of it relatively freely structured post bop with (despite the fact that most of the group were reading) plenty of room left for improvisation. The inspiration of Steve Coleman, Akinmusire’s former mentor could be detected in Akinmusire’s methods as could the influence of bassist and composer Dave Holland, another former Coleman associate. Having said this some of the set’s most effective moments were the quieter passages such as the ballad “Song To Exhale To” and Akinmusire’s lovely duet with pianist Sam Harris “Regret No More”.
Akinmusire’s primary trumpet role model remains Clifford Brown but elements of the entire history of jazz trumpet can be heard in Akinmusire’s playing from Miles Davis through Freddie Hubbard to contemporary European figures such as Arve Henriksen. Akinmusire is an awesome technician a bravura soloist and a gifted improviser who encompasses every aspect of the trumpeter’s art. His breath control is particularly impressive and the sheer range of sounds he produces quite astonishing, from the astonishingly pure to breathy whispers and vocalised growls. He’s good and he knows it but he’s prepared to take musical risks.
The quintet began with a new piece with the simple working title of “Richard”. Akinmusire opened proceedings with a bravura fanfare of solo trumpet pyrotechnics before handing over to Smith for a lengthy, subtly probing tenor solo as the rest of the group came in. The understated Harris then took over the reins with a typically thoughtful piano solo before Akinmusire returned for a second solo on blazing open horn.
Raghavan’s cello like arco bass introduced the new ballad “Song To Exhale To” with Akinmusire and Smith stating the theme in unison prior to a lyrical Harris solo underpinned by Brown’s subtle mallet and hand drum colourations. Smith’s pithy tenor solo was followed by Akinmusire’s sparse, Milesian trumpet, notable for its purity of tone with subtle embellishments by means of slurs and half valve techniques.
Akinmusire’s duet with pianist Sam Harris, “Regret No More”, was hugely affecting with Akinmusire’s superb breath control particularly striking. His superb technique allowed him to wring every shred of emotion out of his instrument, his vocalised tone almost making the instrument “cry” as Harris provided suitably subtle and sympathetic piano accompaniment.
“The Fire Next Time” marked the return to a more forceful approach with Smith taking the first solo followed by a flowing statement from pianist Harris. However the tune’s main focus was Brown’s extended drum feature over a persistent piano vamp, gradually building in energy and complexity in an impressive display of technique, stamina and an underlying musicality.
“Marie Christie” cleverly mixed brief, terse theme statements with lengthier solos, the baton being seamlessly passed between the musicians by way of tightly knit unison passages. Individually we heard from Akinmusire (at one point linking up with Harris again), the drily laconic Smith and bassist Raghavan who this time delivered a meaty pizzicato solo. The whole was powered by the controlled power of Justin Brown.
The set closed with “Clovell”, one of Akinmusire’s strongest melodic themes with the trumpeter and Smith working beautifully in tandem prior to a final Akinmusire solo and a lyrical piano coda courtesy of Harris. An appreciative Bristol crowd called for an encore and were awarded by an absorbing totally improvised duet between Akinmusire and drummer Justin Brown, the trumpeter spraying out iridescent streams of notes above Brown’s powerful, imaginative polyrhytmic drumming, particularly notable for its inventive use of bass drum patterns.
Earlier we had enjoyed a brief support set from British pianist Robert Mitchell and his “3io” featuring double bassist Tom Mason and drummer Richard Spaven. This is Mitchell’s regular working trio and the group has released two albums, “The Greater Good” (2008) and “The Embrace” (2009), both of which are reviewed elsewhere on this site together with coverage of festival appearances at Cheltenham (2009) and Brecon (2011).
Mitchell chose to give brief snapshot of the 3io’s collective talents with the set featuring one tune each from the three participants plus their stunning cover of “Teardrop” by Massive Attack, the pieces spread across both albums.
They opened with Mitchell’s “Cumulus”, the opening track from “The Greater Good” album. Mitchell’s solo piano intro gave notice of his phenomenal,classically honed technique. As bass and drums were added to the mix the pianist soloed more expansively. Mitchell likes to spin complex rhythmic and melodic lines with the work of the left hand as important as that of the right. The piece also included a passage of muscular but dexterous bass from the excellent Mason which acted as a bridge into his own “A Desperate Man”, a busy piece of writing that saw Mitchell soloing feverishly, fingers a characteristic blur. A lengthy bass and drum interlude was punctuated by Mitchell’s telling single notes and chords as Spaven demonstrated his mastery of broken beats and hip hop rhythms, a distinctive element in the 3io’s music.
Given Massive Attack’s status as local heroes it was inevitable that Mitchell would include his group’s inspired cover of “Teardrop” in his Bristol set.
The piece is a feature for Mason who plucked out the familiar melody on his bass before later picking up the bow to add supremely atmospheric arco effects on the tune’s coda. The piece also offered Spaven another opportunity to display his command of contemporary rhythms.
They closed with the new tune “Round Window”, co-composed by Spaven with Dutch musician Vincent Helbers, his regular writing partner. The piece was characterised by the familiar interlocking grooves of Mason and Spaven together with Mitchell’s feverish, virtuoso soloing. Although little more than a taster this was an enjoyable set from the Mitchell group which was warmly received by an appreciative Bristol crowd, several of whom had probably seen the group before. CD sales afterwards seemed to be encouraging and the 3io must have been satisfied with the results of their brief evening’s work.
If the Mitchell group came as a very welcome bonus I was a little disappointed not to hear a little bit more from Akinmusire. At just over an hour his quintet’s set was fairly short and despite the brilliance of the leader there were moments that suggested that the group as a whole wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders. For all this I was also disappointed that no copies of “The Heart Emerges…” were available as I haven’t actually heard it yet and would have been happy to buy a copy. If they sold out earlier on the tour then good luck to them but if it’s for any other reason then somebody’s backside needs kicking.
My thanks to Justin Brown for speaking to me afterwards and giving me some important information about the tunes played in his band’s set. Also to Ian Storrer who introduced the acts and who has worked tirelessly to promote jazz and folk in the Bristol area. Previously only an email acquaintance it was good to meet him at last.
Finally thanks to Kerstan Mackness of Riot Squad Publicity and Amy Coombe of tour promoters Serious for organising my tickets.
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