Ambrose Akinmusire: When the Heart Emerges Glistening

I’ve seen Ambrose Akinmusire play twice. The first time, he was part of the Monterey Jazz Festival touring ensemble with Chris Potter, Benny Green, Christian McBride, Lewis Nash, and Dee Dee Bridgewater. The Ferguson Center for the Arts in Newport News was an odd setting for him, as was the group itself. Green, Nash, and McBride are among the “Young Lions” that brought hard-swinging jazz back into vogue in the late 80s and early 90s. Bridgewater is fairly traditional as well and Potter was cutting edge early in his career but made such a mark on the music that his sound was decidedly mainstream when the tour commenced in 2012. It bears mentioning that his sound was mainstream by virtue of the frequency and baldness with which younger musicians copied him for twenty years, but still.

Even that early in his career, Akinmusire was radically outside the mainstream. I sat in nosebleed seats reserved for music department rush tickets as he stepped to the microphone to improvise over “All of Me.” He put the trumpet to his lips, the rest of his face blocked by the brim of a black-on-black Oakland Athletics hat, and summoned an outlandish, dissonant mass; like one of those angular metal sculptures at The Hirshhorn, left in the sun to melt. I was riveted. When I got back to my apartment that night, I bought his most recent record (at the time): When the Heart Emerges Glistening.

I saw him again at The Stone on Avenue C one frigid January evening almost six years later. He sat in that crackerbox with Mary Halvorsen and Craig Taborn, winding through a series of atonal miniatures, more experimental chamber music than anything that could be called “jazz.” To be fair, Akinmusire doesn’t put much stock in the “j-word” anyway. He runs with the likes of Jason Moran, Ravi Coltrane (who I once heard refer to jazz as “the j-word”), Robert Glasper, and others to whom jazz is irrelevant if not an outright damaging contrivance of the music industry. Amiri Baraka, writing as LeRoi Jones, rejected the word forty years before most of them were old enough to care and numerous musicians, particularly black musicians with more reason to resent the exploitation of the industry, followed suit. Even for those musicians who don’t much care for semantics, the word packages up a rich, kaleidoscopic tradition with derivative nonsense, even as it excludes much that they value enormously.

In the six years between the concert hall in Virginia and the art space in the East Village, Akinmusire put out a studio album and a live recording. They’re extraordinary works of art but I love When the Heart Emerges Glistening, in large part for a single short moment in the first track: “Confessions To My Unborn Daughter.” There are many little moments, even on that first track. Just after the first utterance of the brief melody, trumpet and saxophone alternate long, ascending chromatic runs that pan dramatically from right ear to left and back again. Each time I listen is like a finger coming from nowhere and running from one shoulder to the other. But one moment stands out above the others.

The saxophone and trumpet (Walter Smith III and Akinmusire) trade bursts and splatter notes over the roiling chaos of bass, piano, and drums (Harish Raghavan, Gerald Clayton, and Justin Brown). Saxophone wins out and, just as the clatter of rhythm section crests and crashes, someone breaches the pristine vacuum of the recording studio and shouts approval: Whoa! I imagine, halfway through a serious piece of artistic theater, one of the actors turns to the audience and winks. The fourth wall is stripped suddenly to the studs and a finished piece of art becomes what it always was: a group of men in a room playing music.

I could try harder, but for this sort of thing, the top of one’s head is the best place to look and I can think of only two instances of recorded music that have that same jarring effect. Halfway through Paul Desmond’s solo on “How High the Moon,” from the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Jazz at Oberlin, with the crowd growing more and more excitable, drummer Lloyd Davis suddenly starts banging out raucous faux latin rhythms on the bell of his ride cymbal. The audience that just a few moments earlier can be heard yelling g’on Paul! goes wild. On the opening track of Jazz at Massey Hall, Charlie Parker breaks from his spidery bebop lines to summon a great bluesy smear of a thing and the crowd and bandstand erupt with glee. In truth, the entirety of “Perdido,” if not the whole album, constitutes one long such instance.

All performing artists – actors, musicians, dancers – experience a certain elusive and sublime feeling. To indulge my own prejudice for a moment, artists that toy with spontaneity and deeper levels of interaction before an audience – stage actors, improvising musicians, dancers of a more modern bent – likely experience it more frequently. A pop psychologist would probably call the feeling “flow state,” but that always seemed reductive. Religious scholar Karen Armstrong compared it to religious experience: closer, though a little over the top for my application. It’s less about concentration and more tied to the communal nature of the activity. Maybe musica universalis; music of the spheres, right proportions, divine fractions, a lining up of everything just so, each fit the idea a bit better. Each concept in turn – flow, religious experience, music of the spheres – seems too grandiose to describe something I felt once, the day after Halloween, in a third-floor living room on Aberdeen Street while my friend Brian, in a Batman mask leftover from the previous night, wailed on a soprano saxophone.

Maybe in the way that all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares, all of these experiences are a sort of flow but not all flow is quite what I’m driving at here. There are moments when the pieces fit, the music piles up in just the right arrangements and the room opens up a little. The experiences feel disconnected from reality even as they represent the same elusive perfection and hyper-engagement that psychologists describe with “flow.” The act of engaging and creating with other people is far more important than the music that results and the consequent recordings, if there are any, can be surprising. We recorded the session during which Batman made his appearance and, at the climax of Brian’s solo, the drummer shouts above the din: Ay yo! Batman! Okay!

Feeling absorbed within the confines of a loose semi-circle of other individuals, pocked walls of a shitty basement studio, and cramped recesses of a single second among an endless stream of hours is unusual. It happens more than the drama of my analogy – music of the spheres! – might imply but it’s not common. A room full of sounds and breathing, accurately captured on wax, is even more abnormal. Abnormal atop unusual, odds compounded make for uncommon rarity.

I’ve spent years trying to articulate why I react so powerfully to those curious instances in recorded music when the illusion is broken. I’ve said many times that it’s about the recording process freezing and capturing for posterity the essence of live music. That’s not wrong, but it’s not specific enough either. Those moments, of which I can think of so few, validate the feeling that hangs in a room but that is so fleeting and atmospheric that a musician can’t be sure it’s real. He or she can’t be sure, at least, until Dizzy, Bird, Bud, Mingus, and Max holler over the roars of the crowd; the group of restrained Oberlin students explode over the clatter of ride cymbal; Ambrose or Justin Brown or Gerald Clayton or Harish Raghavan shatters the immaculate fourth wall of a recording studio and bellows his approval of Walter Smith’s unleashing of chaos.

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