CAMBRIDGE — Things don’t seem to hang around too long on Ambrose Akinmusire’s personal “to do” list.
The trumpeter, composer, and bandleader said in 2011 that he found composition “very grueling,” and that “me and strings just don’t get along.” So his new album, out Tuesday, showcases 12 exquisitely crafted original compositions, with three songs featuring appearances by the Osso String Quartet.
“I keep a list of things that I’m really bad at or scare me and I really try to attack them every day. In public,” Akinmusire, 31, says, in a telephone interview from his Los Angeles home. (Other items on the list: learning some new languages, and getting better at drawing.)
The album is his second for Blue Note Records and third overall. Between its title (“the imagined savior is far easier to paint”) and additional guest spots by three vocalists (Becca Stevens, Theo Bleckmann, and Cold Specks) plus flutist Elena Pinderhughes, it seems to announce itself as the serious statement of an ambitious young artist. People are taking notice; Akinmusire is on the cover of the April issue of DownBeat.
But while nothing on the engrossing LP sounds accidental, it manages to feel fresh amid all the maturity. Much of its liveliness might be traced to the interplay of Akinmusire’s working band, a quintet including Walter Smith III on tenor sax, drummer Justin Brown, bassist Harish Raghavan, and Sam Harris on piano. The group plays the Regattabar on Wednesday.
It’s not that songwriting is new to Akinmusire, but for this record he wanted to make it a strong suit.
“I don’t think I’m a bad composer,” he says, “I just didn’t think I had the ability to maintain someone’s attention, even my own attention, without improvising. That’s a thing I’ve been trying to tackle.”
Pianist Jason Moran says Akinmusire has “helped to expand the vocabulary a little bit” for jazz trumpeters, and he looks forward to watching his friend’s creative arc continue to take shape. “He’s hellbent not to be pigeonholed as the kind of musician that anyone thinks he is. I think he’s going to have fun always trying to turn those corners before anyone can anticipate it,” says Moran, who produced Akinmusire’s Blue Note debut.
Akinmusire’s style on the horn is original but informed by his forebears, on trumpet as well as other instruments. It seems to be still emerging. (He says he spent a period of time trying to play the trumpet as if it were a cello.) Refreshingly, he isn’t fussy about using the word “jazz” to describe what he plays.
“I really do think that what I’m doing is just a continuation of what Louis Armstrong did,” he says. “When I look at the pictures of the black men in the ’50s and ’60s going through the social unrest that they went through, and thinking about the resilience and just looking at the dignity and the pride on their faces, why wouldn’t I want to be connected to that? I’m proud to consider myself a jazz musician, to be part of that legacy.”
As a compositional tool, Akinmusire says he’d start by coming up with a title and then imagine a story line that would go along with it, even characters. Several of the new songs’ titles identify their inspiration parenthetically: the late tap dancer John W. Bubbles, Joni Mitchell, and a homeless man on Akinmusire’s block are among those cited.
His songwriting appetite was whetted by this effort to tell stories through music; he says he’d love to write an opera or “some type of multimedia thing” if he can find the right opportunity.
Brown has played with Akinmusire since the two were teenagers in the Bay Area, meeting at a summer jazz program and, later, both earning acceptance to the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. He says he sees Akinmusire’s general approach to life reflected in his music.
“When we talk we have this ongoing theme of just saying ‘onward and upward.’ He’s always been that type of dude, since the get-go. Ambrose has always been one who seeks knowledge,” Brown says, “and wants to convey it in an honest way. Just as a person, it really speaks to his music that that’s who he is as an individual.”
Indeed, Akinmusire describes his musical goals in the context of his greater aims as a human being. When he says he hopes to build toward “healing people” through music, it sounds lofty but not pretentious, the ambition of a thoughtful artist. He speaks from the vantage point of a searcher, not someone who claims to have the answers.
“I think now I’m at the point of just trying to be a conduit,” he says, “so this thing that’s higher than all of us can come through me and come out of the horn. So it’s not so specific to any instrument or the trumpet itself, I’m just trying to be a clear vessel myself — mentally, physically, and technically on the trumpet.”
As to what that vessel might channel next, it seems it might be a surprise even to Akinmusire. But it wouldn’t be a shock to see him surface with something he’s never done before — an opera, perhaps. It’d be another thing to check off his list.