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In demand and on the move, Ambrose Akinmusire’s explorations lead to Boston and beyond

Ambrose AkinmusireOgata

The celebrated composer and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire hasn’t released an album since 2020′s “on the tender spot of every calloused moment,” having busied himself moving from one house to another in his native Oakland and collaborating on music for the Oakland-set TV series “Blindspotting.”

But that will change with a flurry of record releases and commissioned performances in 2023, beginning this weekend with performances in Chicago on Friday and at Artists for Humanity EpiCenter in South Boston on Saturday, the latter the concluding show in the four-concert jazz festival put on this week by Celebrity Series of Boston (his performance is sold out). The weekend shows will feature Akinmusire’s quartet with pianist Sullivan Fortner, bassist Joe Sanders, and drummer Justin Brown, with special guest Kurt Rosenwinkel on guitar.


From Boston, Akinmusire will head directly to Sweden to rehearse music he composed for the Norrbotton Big Band that will premiere during his residency there in November. In April, his work “Bird and Basquiat: Now’s the Time!,” conceived as a dream encounter between Charlie Parker and Jean-Michel Basquiat, will be performed with an orchestra as part of a Philharmonie de Paris exhibit dedicated to Basquiat.

In May, Akinmusire travels to Minneapolis to premiere “Honey from a winter’s stone” over a two-night residency at the Walker Art Center. That work, a follow-up to his genre-blurring 2018 project “Origami Harvest,” will see him joined by the rapper Kokayi, the Mivos Quartet, drummer Justin Brown, pianist Sam Harris, and key bassist Chiquita Magic. Mary Halvorson may also join the ensemble on guitar.

Then there are the forthcoming recordings. Three trio albums will be released this year by the label (whose identity is being withheld for now) he is moving to after a long association with Blue Note Records. Each album will have a different set of trio mates: guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Herlin Riley; pianist Kris Davis and drummer Gerald Cleaver; pianist Sullivan Fortner and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. And before those albums drop, he plans to self-release a solo trumpet album he recorded at Saint-Eustache church in Paris.


These opportunities keep coming his way because Akinmusire ranks high among the most gifted and socially conscious composers of his generation. He celebrates Black culture and beloved artistic mentors. He also mourns and protests injustice: Beginning with “My Name Is Oscar,” the tribute to Oscar Grant on “When the Heart Emerges Glistening,” his four studio albums for Blue Note each included a piece referencing the growing roll call of Black bodies that led to the Black Lives Matter protests.

“Now that I’m 40, I can look back at different phases that I’ve had,” says Akinmusire, reached at home recently. “I think I’m really just speaking of my life. I’m a Black man in America. A topic has to be survival and the Black body and all those things that I experience every day. That is a common thread in my music, because that is a common thread in my life.”

“I’ve always been thinking about performance as resistance and as as a political statement,” he continues, “meaning my body on a stage. And all the things that it took for that to happen.”

“Who gets to speak for Black people? Have those people had the experience, even if they look like me? Rarely do [those who do] get a platform to speak out to people who are not Black about the Black experience. So I’m trying on the small platform that I have to speak about the Black experience as a Black person who’s still experiencing it. Part of the reason I moved back to Oakland was I can’t just be out here talking about this and not living it.”


“I don’t have any other choice. I really have tried to write tunes that are not about that. But it’s still in there.”

Akinmusire was speaking the day following the death of the legendary composer and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Akinmusire, like Shorter, is a virtuosic instrumentalist who prioritizes music itself over technical prowess.

Was Akinmusire’s attitude toward composing and performing influenced by Shorter?

“I’ve spent a lot of time with Wayne over the years,” answers Akinmusire. “And I think the thing that I got most from Wayne was that he and Herbie [Hancock] both taught me how to chant, how to meditate. And I think that that’s related to the music.”

“With knowledge, I feel like intuition is the highest form,” he explains. “I think the same thing about music. So when we start talking about technique, that’s still living in the physical world. I think the step beyond that is getting to what the music wants and seeing the music as an almost living thing, and trying to tap into this sort of universal consciousness, where we can hear what the music wants, what the universe wants. And I think that’s when these magical moments happen in a band, when everybody tunes in and plays the same thing for two seconds. I think that’s really my goal — to play what the music says to play.”


As for this weekend’s shows, “I’m thinking a lot these days about just doing things that are fun and inspiring,” says Akinmusire. “And so I just dreamt up this crazy band and thought, ‘If everybody’d say yes, that would be amazing.’ They did. That’s what we’re gonna do. Kurt Rosenwinkel was one of my heroes. I’ve never played with him. I played with Mark [Turner], I played with Brad [Mehldau]. I played with a lot of my heroes, but Kurt I haven’t played with, and he’s somebody that I know we all have been inspired by. So it was really just to say thank you to Kurt.”

“It’s really important to give people their flowers when you can, and it doesn’t have to be at the end of their lives. It can be in the middle of their lives. It can be when they can still see the flowers, and you can still play with them and hug them and have access to them. It doesn’t matter what age they are. So I want to give Kurt his flowers. I just did a thing with Ron Carter, to say thank you to Ron Carter. I did a thing with Josh Redman. I’m doing a project with Bill [Frisell] and Herlin Riley.


“All these things are to just say thank you to people, and to acknowledge their influence and make the continuum of all of this, and to hopefully influence younger musicians, younger generations to do the same.”