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Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire Mixes The Playful And Solemn On A New Album


This is FRESH AIR. Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review of trumpet player Ambrose Akinmusire's new album with his longtime quartet. Akinmusire is from the Bay Area. He broke out in jazz over a decade ago. He won the Thelonious Monk Competition, started recording a series of ambitious records for Blue Note and made an appearance on Kendrick Lamar's landmark album "To Pimp A Butterfly." Here's Kevin's review.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Ambrose Akinmusire's quartet from their new album poetically titled "On The Tender Spot Of Every Calloused Moment." This singular trumpet player has a keen sense of musical drama, using space and shading to good effect. He's hardly the first improviser to choose a few notes or gestures with care. But he can really push the idea without giving up the vocal quality that jazz soloists prize.


WHITEHEAD: Ambrose Akinmusire has been mixing it up with the same rhythm section for years - pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Justin Brown. They've evolved a way of working together that's quirky, like the boss's horn. The band's sound is sometimes light on the bass with piano often doubling or shadowing trumpet some kind of way and drums ever pushing without settling into a steady groove. They stay busy but don't crowd the leader's trumpet.


WHITEHEAD: There are playful qualities in this music, too - moments where the musicians let things unravel in a good way.

Ambrose Akinmusire calls his new album a blues record. But traditional blues markers are hard to come by, even on a tune called "Blues," subtitled "We Measure The Heart With A Fist." There, Akinmusire wields trumpet like an anti-jazz raygun.


WHITEHEAD: The first jazz Ambrose Akinmusire saw live was the wide open, pan-stylistic Art Ensemble of Chicago. One piece here is for that band's Roscoe Mitchell. Art Ensemble trumpeter Lester Bowie's precarious attack also made an impression. That breathy sound reminds us that in the end, noble trumpeters are just pushing air through a pipe. Ambrose Akinmusire's band doesn't sound like the Art Ensemble. But as with that group, the music can move in ways you don't see coming.


JESUS DIAZ: (Chanting in Yoruba).

WHITEHEAD: Jesus Diaz chanting in Yoruba, a hat tip to Akinmusire's Nigerian father - there's one more vocal here, a soft ballad whispered by Genevieve Artadi. Like previous Akinmusire albums, this one includes a somber memorial to Black lives cut short, a solo meditation on electric piano. There is one more tribute on Ambrose Akinmusire's album "On The Tender Spot Of Every Calloused Moment." The funeral hymn "Roy" for trumpeter Roy Hargrove shows just how pretty Akinmusire can play. But to play like that all the time is not an option. He has much more to say than just that.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the new book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed "On The Tender Spot Of Every Calloused Moment," the new album by Ambrose Akinmusire.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Colin Jost, a head writer for "Saturday Night Live" and co-anchor of Weekend Update. He's written a new memoir called "A Very Punchable Face." We'll talk about everything from his childhood, when he was unable to put thoughts into words, to the intentionally tasteless jokes that Michael Che forces him to read on Update. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering from Mike Villers. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.