REVIEW: Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet at Stadtgarten in Cologne


Ambrose Akinmusire at Espoo in Finland earlier in this European tour
Photo credit: Ralf Dombrowski
Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet 
(Stadtgarten, Cologne. 2 May 2016. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

The Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet really is a coherent working band. Its members have stuck together for six to seven years, and by the end of two sets of careful listening to the trumpeter with Sam Harris on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass and Jason Brown on drums, it is no mystery what the guiding principle is. All of the members have a constant and alert sense that they never want to rest on what has been achieved, they would rather keep trying new things, explore contrasts, find as many different permutations and combinations of sound as they can, and to present music that evolves rather than stays bound by conventional forms.

Writing about the group, it feels more logical to start describing  how it functions from the ground up rather than talking straight away about the leader. Raghavan and Brown together are a very potent force. Time and again they show an ability to define the structure and the shape of a piece by their way of landing together with real force, or to give such an insistent pulse and unstoppable, un-ignorable  momentum it sets a challenge to the pianist and trumpeter to go with it, or to go against it. If that urgency is one thing they can give, they are also equally capable of withholding it. Brown can just create light or multi-layered textures, and Raghavan as a melodic player with the bow or playing minimal time can set a backdrop for the tenderest moments. Or they can just lay out completely to let Harris and Akinmusire find the most delicate of patterns.

Sam Harris, as one German critic has described him, is capable of "reconciling Bill Evans with Cecil Taylor and Brain (sic!) Ferneyhough." That misprint is not misplaced, it might even accidentally say all that needs to be said: that Harris's harmonic and rhythmic imagination and mental capacity never look like running out.


Bassist Harish Raghavan at Espoo
Photo credit: Ralf Dombrowski
Akinmusire himself leads the unremitting search for contrast, for tonal texture, for leading the listener somewhere unexpected. There was a solo section in arpeggios which sounded like a re-imagining of a Bach prelude, but full of questions both answered and unanswered, and the occasional riddle. One random thing that stays in the mind was some astonishingly deep notes that seemed to be coming from somewhere else than a trumpet. 

The Stadtgarten was completely packed last night. This was one of those gigs where people have to step over the instrument cases to get to their seats: Cologne's improvising musicians of several generations were out in force. It was as if this audience wanted to welcome a musician who needs to be heard on his own terms as one of their own. It didn't seem to matter to those present that there was very little explanation given of what the format for the gig was until late in the second half. Our  attention was fully held without it. What we had heard, it turned out, was firstly a full set based on the material from the 2017 Blue Note album A Rift in Decorum – Live at the Village Vanguard, and then a second set of new material, which at some point will become a next album.

An exciting prospect.

Justin Brown at Espoo
Photo credit: Ralf Dombrowski
This is the first of Sebastian's reports from a press trip to Cologne and Bonn organized and supported by the International Visitors Programme of NRW KULTURsekretariat. The programme for the trip is centred around Jazzfest Bonn 2018.

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