I’m writing this review 39,000 feet in the air, flying back home to Texas after spending the last week meandering through the streets of New York City. The more I see of NYC, so storied and important in the history of jazz, the more I see it as an entity and amalgam of influences rather than a city. NYC’s importance in the development of the genre cannot be understated, and The Village Vanguard solidified its place in jazz history decades ago. The club has hosted thousands of principal players who have cut hundreds of extremely important albums within the club’s claustrophobic walls.
Did I attend the recording of this album? I wish. However, never having been to the Village Vanguard before, I felt that experiencing it firsthand would help to better comprehend the mystery behind it’s place in Jazz history. Further, I hoped to better understand Akinmusire and his choice of recording location a little better. If you have not listened to his work before, it may help to jump into his older recordings on the Fresh Sound and Blue Note record labels. Akinmusire is a master player whose albums are compositionally tight, precise and exploding with technical skill. While emotional, freer touches have made their onto his records, they certainly have never been the aural centerpoint of any of his records.
I recommend listening to these older recordings because they truly put into context how different the new album is from Akinmusire’s prior work. ‘A Rift’ is an expansive live double album of brand new original compositions from Akinmusire and his quartet. While choosing a live setting to record a new album isn’t a new (or even particularly interesting) concept, these tunes are executed especially well, and honestly feel like they were made specifically for a live setting. Akinmusire has done a stupendous job of harnessing the power of the room and channeling it into his playing (all the while doing his best Don Cherry impressions along the way).
Giving oneself to the room and the audience is never an easy task (even for a jazz musician) and it is clear that Akinmusire owes many of the creative musical turns this album takes to his band, particularly pianist Sam Harris. Harris’ dark, angular, avant-garde accompaniment takes these numbers to places that neither the audience, nor Akinmusire, expect. The approach Harris takes (freer playing in a live quartet setting with a more pedagogical trumpet player) can be dangerous, as it can result in an extremely awkward performance (Wynton Marsalis anyone?). But in this setting, it pays off big. Free Jazz sits comfortably throughout the album in pieces such as “Brooklyn ODB”, “H.A.M.S.(in the spirit of honesty)”, “Piano Sketch (Sam intro)” and others, with Akinmusire taking creative leaps that have not found their way onto his earlier recorded work . At the same time, more straight-ahead pieces like “Maurice and Michael (sorry i didn’t say hello)” and “Condor” don’t feel out of place. Akinmusire even effortlessly marries these two sides of him in cuts like “Traymoor’s World”, proving that his career could potentially take an exciting new turn in albums to come.
I’ll be frank, I have enjoyed Ambrose Akinmusire’s past albums, but there hadn’t been one that I have loved or come back to often. Referring to a playing style as “academic” is usually intended in a derogatory sense in the world of jazz. While some have attached that nasty word to Akinmusire’s playing, here his impressive technical abilities are on display, but he also allows himself to let loose. For lack of a better word, this is a fun album to listen to: tunes change pace erratically, mistakes are made, and players often stretch outside of what is “normal” in terms of typical playing style on the bandstand. This is by far my favorite piece of recorded work that Ambrose Akinmusire has released, and a textbook example of how greatness often emerges from taking risks.
Ambrose Akinmusire: A Rift in Decorum: Live at the Village Vanguard is out now on Blue Note Records.