Review: Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet at the 2014 Cheltenham Jazz Festival

Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet, Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2014
Photo credit: © John Watson/ . All Rights Reserved

Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet
(Jazz Arena, Cheltenham Jazz Festival, May 4. Review by Jon Turney)

Ambrose Akinmusire can create his own atmosphere by squeezing off a single note on the trumpet. In the absence of the extra contributors to his new CD - the imagined savior is far easier to paint (Blue Note), a minor masterpiece - , especially previous front line touring partner Walter Smith’s sax, shows on the road from his current quartet put the spotlight on the leader’s peerless playing. It glows throughout.

The opener, Roll call for those absent, a kind of positive lament, began with a ruminative piano intro from Sam Harris, leading straight into a transfixing series of slow statements from the horn, mixing pure tones, bent notes, and those moments when the trumpeter ends a phrase by leaning forward slightly into the mike and dropping his volume to a whisper on the last note, like someone confiding something only just speakable.

His manipulation of tone and timbre, often changing on each note at slow tempos, is endlessly expressive. Needless to say, he can rip into fast passages, too, but does so sparingly. Mid-tempo solos feature single note flares punctuating long, fresh lines. He’s a master of dynamic and rhythmic variation, with one long solo mid-set calling to mind Kenny Wheeler in his prime, but really his style is all embracing, and entirely his own.

The compositions are as ambitious and varied as the playing – a new tune currently titled Milky Pete challenged the band with a long, angular, leaping written line that could have been written by Anthony Braxton in the 1970s. Hardly a challenge for players of this calibre, though. Pianist Harris shone throughout, as did Harish Raghaven on bass. Akinmusire’s closest connection, perhaps, is with drummer Justin Brown – they basically grew up together, he says. As if to show what he meant, the unison opening of Pete gave way to a lengthy trumpet/drum duo with free invention in full flow. It was one of many take-your-breath-away moments from one who confirmed that he is a twenty-first century jazz artist of the first order.

A shame to introduce a negative after all that, but unhappily this gig was marred for many by the sonic intrusion from Cheltenham’s nearby free stage. This is not a new problem, but was raised a level for a player who makes such crucial use of space and silence. There were more than a few stretches when the volume from outside the arena enclosure was actually louder than that generated inside. It turned a gig that should have been a triumph into one that was still memorable, but partly for the wrong reason.

Ambrose Akinmusire plays Ronnie Scott’s on May 11. The Cheltenham set is due for broadcast on JazzOn3 on May 19th.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you Jon. I was distracted by the unwanted sound intrusion from the Free Stage on several occasions. There is no doubt in my mind that the musicians noticed it too. Anecdotally, I heard that noise levels were being monitored (with a gadget) on the northern end of the festival site in order that nearby residents were not annoyed by excessive sound. So I am surprised and disappointed (yet again) that no-one thought of the distress and distraction to the main protagonists in the festival – musicians themselves. They deserve better from you Cheltenham Festivals.