Why is jazz so important? It seems most Americans aren’t into it that much. Actually, it’s a fact that most Americans aren’t into it at all. Jazz is somewhere between 3 and 10 percent of record sales, depending on whose accounting you trust. But they’re truly missing something meaningful. Something that can make a middle-aged writer shed a tear for the recent death of a man with the unlikely name of Billy Bang, whose music was balm for the wounds he had suffered (both physical and psychological) in a Southeast Asian jungle where the writer’s father died almost exactly forty years ago. Jazz can cause such pain and such healing through its promise of truly personal expression.
Jazz is important because it gives us Ambrose Akinmusire.
Akinmusire (pronounced ah-kin-MOO-sir-ee) is a soon-to-be 29-year-old trumpet player from Oakland who has just released his debut album for Blue Note Records. It’s called When The Heart Emerges Glistening, and it is important. In fact, it’s nothing short of a miracle. His band consists of: Walter Smith III, tenor saxophone; Gerald Clayton, piano; Harish Raghavan, bass; and Justin Brown, drums. It’s a band of friends, and their affinity is close to being telepathic.
The trumpeter opens the album with a cadenza, which puts one in mind of the cadenza that opens one of the most important jazz records of all time, “West End Blues” by Louis Armstrong (1928). Except where Armstrong’s opening is majestic in its announcement of the arrival of a totally new music, Akinmusire gives us a more conversational launch. Although it’s obvious that Akinmusire possesses chops aplenty, he reserves that part of his art for only those times when it enhances the story he’s telling.
And Akinmusire’s stories are those of everyday heroes, loved ones, and tragedies. He dedicates two pieces, “Ayneh (Cora)” and “Ayneh (Campbell)”, to his mother. He then reverses the word “ayneh” (appropriate, since “ayneh” is Farsi for “mirror”), to give us the full-on emotion of “Henya”. On this, as well as on each cut Akinmusire shares with his saxist Walter Smith III, there is true parity between the leader and his “co-soloist”. At times, the horns are passed back and forth between the stereo channels, a truly exciting effect if you’re listening on headphones.
When The Heart Emerges Glistening is not just about exciting tricks or beloved memories. The stories we hear can be harrowing, as on “My Name Is Oscar”. Akinmusire speaks the part of Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old African-American shot to death by an Oakland transit officer in 2009. Accompanied only by Justin Brown’s drums, he sketches the outlines of the tragedy with the words, “human”, “apology”, “Mehserle”, “nineteen days”, “inauguration”, “Oakland”, “live”, climaxing with the horrifying, “Don’t shoot!”, at which time Brown’s drums proclaim riotously the injustices (like this one) that have been tolerated for too long in America.
Don’t worry: The music is uplifting, too. Gerald Clayton’s piano is harmonically, melodically and rhythmically omnipresent. His comping sends the horns skyward in their quests for artistic truth. Harish Raghavan’s Charlie Haden-like bass grounds the band to the world in which we all live. Hear Clayton’s duets with Akinmusire on “Regret (No More)”, “What’s New”, and Raghavan’s “Henya Bass Intro” for proof of their worthiness.
Now, to possess this miracle, you must make a pilgrim’s progress to a sacred place. That place, of course, is Twist and Shout, Denver’s best independent record store. Make the trip; don’t go to the chain store at the mall, or (horror of horrors) buy from the Internet or download.
This miracle demands your attention.