Review: Walter Smith III, Ambrose Akinmusire pack the Blue Whale

This post has been updated. Please see the bottom for details.

Declining record sales, aging audiences and the closing of legendary clubs make worrying for jazz’s future an annual concern among followers of the music. A few years back one prominent writer even started a mini Twitter movement encouraging fans to use the hashtag "#jazzlives” while heading to a show in the hopes of building measurable evidence of the music’s continued health.

The campaign couldn’t quite sustain itself, but Friday’s show at the Blue Whale in Little Tokyo managed to wash the concerns away, at least for a night. Spurred by a date with a quintet co-led by two longtime collaborators in saxophonist Walter Smith III and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, a line of fans young and old hoping to see a show that had sold out of advance tickets stretched past a nearby ramen shop.


The club’s energetic owner, Joon Lee, mentioned that a few young fans had lined up early in the hopes of catching the first set, and while they made it inside many more were turned away from a club that grew so crowded that a grateful Smith III joked from the bandstand about violating the fire code.

This was a jazz show, mind you. In 2012.

As intoxicating a sight as it was, there’s little substitute for star power. While both Smith III and Akinmusire are top-tier talents with local ties (Smith III teaches at the L.A. County High School for the Arts and Akinmusire previously studied at USC), the latter has become something of a phenomenon since his debut album last year. Since a stunning turn with his quintet at the now-shuttered Cafe Metropol in late 2010 before going in the studio to record “When the Heart Emerges Glistening” (with Smith III on saxophone), Akinmusire has played the Hollywood Bowl, Lincoln Center and toured the country with his band as part of a concert dubbed “The Miles Davis Experience: 1949-1959.”

But this was less about a pair of rising stars than it was about what happens when they come together, a partnership that could be heard on each other’s albums since the two met at the Manhattan School of Music. Backed by Terence Blanchard’s drummer Kendrick Scott and a member of local favorites Kneebody in pianist Adam Benjamin and bassist Harish Raghavan, the duo flexed a common language that pushed both to newer heights.

One piece of the first set featured Smith III and Akinmusire knotted in a beautiful harmony over a rattling, restless snare-drum rhythm from Scott. After Smith III took a twisting, slow-burning solo and Akinmusire took his turn, entering with a gliding yet intense economy of notes that still felt weightless.

A later, contemplative take on what could’ve been “As Time Goes By” featured a lush turn from both horn players until Benjamin’s piano gradually melted down the song’s core, while a twisting take on Smith III’s “Blues” opened with the saxophonist at a twisting, breakneck pace that only grew grew more stormy behind Scott’s acrobatic rhythm.

Many pieces were studies in a slow build, and each step of the way there were Smith III and Akinmusire, meeting and diverging with such grace during a duet performance in the second set that it seemed as if they were completing each other’s thoughts, culminating with Akinmusire releasing a soaring, single note that cut through the club like a shaft of light.

“I don’t like to say it’s rare to see great audiences in L.A., but on some level it is,” Smith III said as he thanked the crowd once more, just before introducing one of Akinmusire’s older pieces, “Hum Song.” As the band accelerated behind an off-kilter turn by Smith III and a skittering, drum-and-bass rhythm from Scott, there was one inescapable feeling as the crowd bobbed right along, some of whom were sitting on the floor. On any given night in a crowded, unconventional club in Little Tokyo, jazz undoubtedly lives.

[Updated: Sunday, 9:15 p.m. An eariler version of this post misidentified bassist Harish Raghavan as a member of Kneebody.]


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