I don’t know how many times I’ve heard young jazz players play boring music, but it’s somewhere in the vicinity of depressing as all fuck. Chances are you know exactly what I’m talking about. You pass some cocktail bar while walking down the street and hear some poor house band lethargically pissing out a standard with less life in it than a tin bucket with a hole in it. The drummer looks like he’s either half-dead or half drunk, you don’t care which. The piano dribbles out some predictable run that’s responded with a few queen waves and a golf clap. Everyone pretends to hear the bass solo but no one does, thank Christ. Places like this are where a sad, over-the-hill, and depressed jazz music goes to talk about the good old days with vomit on its shoes. And, if you didn’t know any better, you might even think that’s all jazz music has to offer.
Enter Ambrose Akinmusire.
Ambrose has been called a lot of things, but one thing he’s never been called is boring. Motherfucker has played alongside Vijay Iyer, Aaron Parks, Steve Coleman, Esperanza Spalding, Jason Moran, and Kendrick Lamar. He won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition and the Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition back in ’07. For those not in the know, winning both of these is like winning an Academy Award while climbing Everest naked as a jaybird. Shit just doesn’t happen.
Ambrose is fucking with heads on this one. He decided to combine the Mivos string quartet, the rapper Kool AD, and a jazz band. Instead of sounding like a car crash, which this very easily could have been, this shit melts together better than cheese, toast, with a pickle on the side. Neither the quartet nor the jazz band try to envelope the entire musical space. That’s a bloody knife of a clue that Ambrose is working with top-notch players. There’s no ego on this record. Each hand and bow work together for the perfect result. But, beware, just because I say this shit doesn’t make the album easy. Fuuuuck no. This pushes some heavy bounds in the way only good art can. But you’ve got to stick with it to get that sweet release.
Some songs work so fluidly you’d think that shit was a water park. Other songs stab and break more often than a lover’s quarrel in OZ. But, much like those lovers’ quarrels, this shit always comes with a reason. On “Free, White, and 21” you get Akinmusire listing off names of African Americans killed by guns, the quartet seems to be practising for an entirely different song, some motherfucker is whistling, and then some other dude randomly shouts “bloodstained”. It’s chaos. But you don’t have to think too hard to understand that the chaos of the music fits with the theme. It’s organized fucking cacophony.
It would be amazing to one day walk down a street and hear jazz music this daring and forward thinking. I would love to see a petrified cocktail party with one guy vomiting into a potted Ficus, someone laughing uproariously, and a topless guest sitting half lotus in deep meditation. Hell, jazz music used to be the soundtrack of riots. And it can still speak on things that can otherwise be said. It can create feelings of love, displeasure, peace, humour, and joy. Ambrose is saying something new here. You may not like it at first, but give it a chance. Hell, if you really don’t like it, there’s always another half-assed rotting unimaginative jazz trio selling off their souls for the chance to play a standard, a bus ticket, and whatever leftovers queen waves and golf claps leave behind.