Jazz review: Ambrose Akinmusire at Cafe Metropol


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News of an artist signing doesn’t make much of a ripple in the music world these days, much less in the comparatively bite-size corner of the industry occupied by jazz. But when word came down of 28-year-old trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire (pronounced akin-MOO-sir-ee) inking a deal with the prestigious Blue Note Records this summer, a fair amount of excited chatter ensued in the jazz Twitter-verse.
And with good reason. The Oakland-born musician has proven himself a talent to watch for years, working with a remarkable range of artists as a sideman, including Joe Henderson, Vijay Iyer and Alan Pasqua. Closing out a brief tour before heading into the studio with top-flight pianist Jason Moran as co-producer, the New York-based Akinmusire showed a packed and energetic Cafe Metropol firsthand just what exactly all the fuss is about.

Working through a first set that included a number of long, patiently unfurling compositions, Akinmusire proved a democratic bandleader. With plenty of room to stretch, his equally young and gifted band offered flashes of skill so fearless it was as if the crowd had stepped into a loose, joyful jam session. Hardly taking any time to introduce anything from the stage other than his bandmates, Akinmusire at one point began a song with a hushed, whispered melody, only to stretch his tone into thick, swerving arcs that weaved in and out of a melody from saxophonist Walter Smith III, who quickly became a crowd favorite. The set closed on a poignant note as the bandstand cleared of all but Akinmusire and pianist Gerald Clayton, with Akinmusire’s horn dropping into a mourning, pensive cry that cut through a noisy back bar. After catching up with some familiar faces between sets (Akinmusire completed his graduate studies at USC), the gloves seemed to come off as the night went on. Slipping into variety of tones that could alternately sound gruff, sharp or sleek, Akinmusire led the band through a variety of shape-shifting structures that at various points touched on twitchy, drum-and-bass funk and an irresistibly off-kilter rhythm vaguely reminiscent of Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android.’


As the night drew to a close, Akinmusire pulled trumpeter Dontae Winslow from the crowd to sit in as the band took turns soloing, each reaching for new, undiscovered corners in drummer Justin Brown’s driving beat. With the song ready to peak, Akinmusire took his turn and instead of reaching for the rafters he went low, dropping into a dark, foghorn-like rumble that felt both out of nowhere yet utterly right. It was a reminder that anything can happen in the moment, and that even in a packed, exposed-brick cafe in an industrial corner of downtown L.A., you can sometimes see a rising star.

-- Chris Barton