Ambrose Akinmusire Quicksilver and Cool at Ronnie Scott’s

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Ambrose-Akinmusire-Live
Ambrose Akinmusire
begins with a strengthening trumpet solo, which becomes a woozily falling, bugle-like cry. A quick cymbal-shiver, and his high school friend Justin Brown brings in the rest of his quintet, newly including Charles Altura, a guitarist of meditative delicacy. Even lacking Muna Blake, the child who on its recorded version lists black Americans recently killed by cops and vigilantes, ‘Rollcall for Those Absent’ feels elegiac. Then it merges into ‘As We Fight’, and Akinmusire’s single-note screams into the stratosphere coalesce into combination-punches of clean, bright power. The rhythm section roils beneath him, Brown creative in the spaces between Sam Harris’ less busy piano. Akinmusire’s alternation between post-bop blitzes and soulful introspection makes this the sort of night Ronnie’s was made for.

The 32-year-old Oaklander writes back-stories for his tunes, made explicit by vocalists including Cold Specks on his second Blue Note album, The Imagined Saviour Is Far Easier to Paint. The complexity of thought suggested by this process, and by such floridly poetic titles, can fill his records almost to bursting. Watching him live makes it plain how much he also belongs in the small-group lineage that began in Blue Note’s pomp, and a trumpeter-bandleader roll of honour reaching back even further.

A private, intuitive duet sometimes seems at work between Akinmusire and Brown, as when the trumpeter makes his runs keep pace with the drummer’s beats during ‘Vartha’, while Harish Raghavan’s double-bass weaves between them. ‘With Love’ sees Akinmusire roll his eyes before launching into rapid, flickering trills over the rhythm section’s buzzing backdrop. A week earlier, at Cheltenham, he paused between musical thoughts, of which he has more than most. Here, he surges through the gears.

The sell-out crowd is mostly young, suggesting Akinmusire is becoming a figurehead. He’s at his strongest when he is most simply emotional, though, and his tone touches that of Miles. ‘Regret (No More)’ is an almost solo blues, with just Harris’s piano in murmuring support. Akinmusire is hushed, breathy and melancholy. He inspects his trumpet between each sally, as the exposed heart of his playing draws you in. Later, Altura’s slow, lucidly reflective phrasing leads to another elegy from the trumpeter of long, low notes. At such moments, the air seems to clear and the surroundings fall away from his potency in the spotlight.

There’s excitement to match the quiet power. Akinmusire takes a little jump as he launches into ‘Milky Pete’, named after Altura’s favoured milk-and-vodka tipple (“quite disgusting,” the trumpeter shudders). Akinmusire starts more snatched and percussive, while Harris switches to keyboard to stab Morse-code riffs. Brown grits his teeth to soar into hard-smacking, kit-roaming overdrive, and his leader’s fingers blur as they almost strum the valves to keep up with the staccato funk.

They finish with a slurred, soft-stepping blues stroll, with Raghavan on slowly walking bass and the tune sliding, like this is the last jazz band on the Titanic’s tipping deck. After a long day when plane delays barely let them make this gig, they play way over time. They still leave you feeling there’s more to come.

– Nick Hasted

– Photo by Tim Dickeson