The dark colors and aggressive rhythms of trumpeter and composer Ambrose Akinmusire’s music speak of hard-won affirmation and deep introspection. That much, and a level of social engagement, is indicated by song titles like “Rollcall for Those Absent,” “As We Fight,” and “The Fire Next Time” (from the James Baldwin title).
And his new Blue Note CD, “the imagined savior is easier to paint,” is suffused with brooding intensity. But at the Regattabar on Wednesday night, Akinmusire’s quintet, intense on record, also revealed lyrical delicacy, a constantly intimate give-and-take.
Akinmusire, 31, originally from Oakland, Calif., has been a comer since he won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 2007. The new album is his second for Blue Note. At the Regattabar he showed off his burnished tone (especially beautiful in his smudged-charcoal lower register), stunning facility, and full arsenal of effects — smears and squealed half-valves, jumps in register, dramatic dynamic contrasts. But what was most impressive was how he put those skills to use. At one point he brought the band down to a hush, with only pianist Sam Harris’s spare chords behind him — mixing long-toned phrases with fast flurries of notes, fluttering asides, and plenty of space, his playing took on the cadences of speech.
Meanwhile, the band moved through Akinmusire’s lovely asymmetrical melodies and song forms with elastic ease. Akinmusire played lead lines in unison with tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, but just as often they traded phrases or came together at random points. The band didn’t play a single tune of straightahead walking-bass swing all night, but the members had their own kind of groove in odd and mixed meters.
And the music was beautifully transparent — from the top layers of Akinmusire and Smith’s lines, to the slow-moving currents of Harris’s supporting chords, to bassist Harish Raghavan’s alternating patterns, to the propulsive churn of drummer Justin Brown’s tight patterns. At times, the band took on the character of a translucent sea creature, expanding and contracting on the currents of the music.