Even if you haven't yet heard of Ambrose Akinmusire, you might think you know what his lauded new album "When the Heart Emerges Glistening" sounds like. Jazz — particularly jazz trumpet — is a loaded business, one in which swaths of territory were established by legends like Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, musicians who advanced the genre in such a way their names practically function as different ways to say the word "jazz."
Except the Oakland-born Akinmusire (pronounced akin-MOO-sir-ee), who performs at the Playboy Jazz Festival on Saturday, doesn't quite sound like anyone else. Released to wide acclaim in April and recorded with a taut quintet, Akinmusire's debut on Blue Note Records spares the solo fireworks and familiar structures that mark many contemporary jazz recordings and instead reaches for something more ethereal.
Where some artists take a melody by the reins and run as far as their instrument will carry them, Akinmusire often works with more mystery, sometimes atmospherically weaving around a song's perimeter while elsewhere knifing through it like a flash from a fog-shrouded lighthouse. His tone can flutter along sweeping arcs or fall to Earth and fold in on itself, such as with the strikingly wounded note that curls like a leaf around part of the album's restless ballad "Regret (No More)."
"The thing that gets you first is he doesn't play the trumpet like a trumpet," said Terence Blanchard, a fellow trumpeter who taught Akinmusire for two years at the Thelonious Monk Institute at USC, where he won the school's prestigious jazz competition in 2007. "You don't hear any other trumpet phrases or anything like that, which is kind of odd because it's like, well, what made him pick up a trumpet?"
Speaking by phone from Amsterdam between stops on a European tour, Akinmusire sounded puzzled when asked about his sound. "I try to just be myself, and I guess in being myself it wouldn't be 'typical' because we're all completely different," he said, adding that his process of constant reevaluation may also play a role. "I try to just check in with myself as much as possible.... Do I still believe the things that I believed in yesterday? Do I still like to play this way? Do I still like this song? Do I still like my sound?"
In arriving at this point, Akinmusire described a childhood in which a life in music never seemed in question. When he was 2 he would run up to the church piano and bang on the keys in midservice, leading his family to enroll him in lessons a few years later. He later switched to the drums, but the constant hammering on the walls led his mother to demand that Ambrose pick another instrument in the fifth grade. "I just chose the trumpet because it had three buttons and I thought it would be easy," he said sheepishly.
Before long, Akinmusire's story grew more distinctive. After being noticed performing with the Berkeley High School Jazz Ensemble, he was tabbed at age 19 by saxophonist Steve Coleman to join his Five Elements band. Calling his time with Coleman "life-changing," Akinmusire was inspired to reconsider what he was trying to express when he returned to his studies at the Manhattan School of Music.
"I simply didn't want to be seen as a musician, I wanted to be seen as an artist," he said. "I want to be able to come up with an album where maybe I don't play trumpet — and nobody cares. Like my artistry is so strong that I don't have to play the trumpet.... [For example] if Björk came out with an album where she just played piano, I think people would still buy it."
Before being accepted into the Monk Institute, Akinmusire's headstrong approach wasn't always appreciated. "I was always that weird guy, the rebel who did things his own way. But I always thought that's what you were supposed to do," he explained with a laugh. "[Teachers] would say this scale goes with this chord and I would say 'OK, why?' Don't just give this to me and expect me to take it just because you said so, explain it to me.... I'm not cocky or anything, but I just want to get to the root of things, I want to look at it from every angle."
"He definitely has his own approach to his ideas," Blanchard said. "Listen, man, there's a vast history we have to deal with in this music, and we're constantly being told, 'OK, you have to run through the history before you can be yourself.' And at the Monk Institute I don't necessarily believe that's true with those students [like Akinmusire] because they already have some kind of voice they're hearing inside of their heads."
Akinmusire recorded his first album, "Prelude to Cora," a month after graduating from the institute in 2007, but he finds it hard to listen to now, dismissing the recording sessions as "a wreck" while he grappled with a shortage of gigs and a move back to New York. Quickly immersing himself in the city's music scene, he backed a variety of high-profile artists including Vijay Iyer, Gretchen Parlato and Jason Moran, which eventually led to his signing with Blue Note last year.
With Moran onboard as co-producer, Akinmusire kept the sessions for "When the Heart Emerges Glistening" loose, trying to capture as live a sound as possible. "I think Ambrose wants guys to feel free, to feel free to try things and push the music in different directions so there's not necessarily a set rule with how something needs to go," said pianist Gerald Clayton, who played with Akinmusire since their days at USC but recently left the band to concentrate on his trio's new album. "It's really inspiring just to be around him. A lot of that music is tough, it's stuff you have to spend time with and think about."
Like contemporaries Christian Scott and Shane Endsley from the genre-mashing group Kneebody, Akinmusire's music isn't the sort that can easily be compartmentalized with some imagined tradition or the avant-garde and instead captures something more difficult to define.
Though the album isn't a difficult listen it's often an unsettled one, full of as many deep shadows as brilliant sparks of light. Oscar Grant, the unarmed man shot by a transit policeman at an Oakland-area BART station in 2009, is given a plaintive, spoken word and percussion tribute in "My Name Is Oscar," and the elegiac "Tear Stained Suicide Manifesto" swirls through a slow-burning cycle of mourning and rebirth inspired by a short story written by Akinmusire before he composed a single note.
"This ties more into the title" of the album, he said. "I think that's a problem that a lot of people have, until people are really comfortable with the dark parts or the negative parts of themselves they can't ever really be happy or really evolve into the people that they want to be.
"When I get people's albums and everything sounds great and happy I'm just like, 'Really? You're 25 and you've worked out all your [issues]? That's amazing,'" he added with a laugh.
In considering his next moves, Akinmusire talks about putting together a duo project or perhaps teaming with a string quartet, vocalists or electronic band. He's also planning a move back to the West Coast to be closer to his family, admitting that he sometimes feels New York wearing him down. In another of those unexpected twists, he excitedly talks about his current "bread and butter" and dream collaborator, indie harpist-songwriter Joanna Newsom ("She'll sing one note and change it like 100 different ways, it's all so musical"). Whatever direction Akinmusire takes next, no one should expect him to stay there long.
"To me it's really weird to play one instrument or do the same thing for 60 years," he said. "I'm just not like that. You definitely won't see me 50 years from now only playing in a jazz quintet. It's impossible."