The Los Angeles Times recently named Akinmusire one of their 2011 "Faces to Watch," and offered this descriptive of the quintet's recent LA performance: "Akinmusire and his band demonstrated a remarkably fluid, adventurous interplay and patiently imaginative way with melody that sounded as steeped in the music's history as it was hard-wired with the sound of something new. With a chameleonic tone that can sigh, flutter or soar, Akinmusire sounds less like a rising star than one that was already at great heights and just waiting to be discovered."
The discovery of Ambrose Akinmusire (pronounced ah-kin-MOO-sir-ee) has been a slow and steady process. Born and raised in Oakland, California, it was as a member of the Berkeley High School Jazz Ensemble that Akinmusire first caught the attention of a discerning ear. Saxophonist Steve Coleman was visiting the school to give a workshop and immediately heard promise in the young trumpeter, eventually hiring him as a member of his Five Elements band and embarking on an extensive European tour when Akinmusire was just 19.
The experience proved life-changing. Coleman—considered by many to be the spiritual godfather of the current creative jazz scene—challenged Akinmusire on and off the stage. "Ambrose, what's your concept?" Akinmusire remembers Coleman asking him on a train ride through Germany. "Concept? I'm 19, I don't need a concept. It'll just come one day," shrugged Akinmusire, raising the saxophonist's ire. "He really laid in on me. I'll never forget it," he recalls. "You've got to start thinking about it now," Coleman told him. "Everything you don't love, make sure that's not in your playing."
Akinmusire took the advice to heart, and returned to his studies at the Manhattan School of Music determined to discover his own voice. "When I got back to school I wrote a list," he explains. "It was very specific, it had things on it like 'I don't want to be confined by my instrument' or 'I want to have a sound like a French Horn player.' It had harmonic concepts on it. I posted it on my wall so every day I was reminded of it. It caused me a lot of trouble because if a teacher told me to do something and it didn't really fit what was on that list I didn't listen to them. It really made me learn who I was because I had to defend that every day."
After returning to the West Coast to pursue a master's degree at the University of Southern California, Akinmusire went on to attend the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Los Angeles, an experience that began to bring his quest into clearer focus. "I went from being the oddball to being surrounded by people who were just like me and having teachers that were stressing [individuality] like Terence [Blanchard], Herbie [Hancock], and Wayne [Shorter]. I learned a lot from Terence. He really got me to be 100% comfortable in the things I was hearing in my head. After the Monk Institute it was just me going for my own sound and my own concept."
2007 was a pivotal year for Akinmusire. He entered and won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition from a panel of judges that included Blanchard, Quincy Jones, Herb Alpert, Hugh Masekela, Clark Terry and Roy Hargrove. That year he also won the Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition and released his debut recording Prelude...To Cora on the Fresh Sound New Talent label. He moved back to New York City and began performing with the likes of Vijay Iyer, Aaron Parks, Esperanza Spalding, and Jason Moran, taking part in Moran's innovative multimedia concert event In My Mind: Monk At Town Hall, 1957. It was also during this time that he first caught the attention of another discerning set of ears, those of Bruce Lundvall, President of Blue Note Records.
"I've been following Ambrose for a while, and I believe he is the kind of musician that jazz needs more of," states Lundvall. "He's finding a very distinctive voice on his instrument, has a fantastic sense of adventure, and is dedicated to pushing the music forward."
Lundvall signed Akinmusire, and in September 2010 the trumpeter brought his quintet into Brooklyn Studios to begin recording. Bringing Moran on board as co-producer was a natural choice. "Over the years not only has he been a musician and an artist that I've looked up to but he's been one of the most blunt and honest people I've ever met in my life, and I just wanted that type of energy in the studio," explains Akinmusire. "He's also one of the few musicians that on every record he's given 100% and that's what I was striving for. He's the guy that people of my generation really look up to right now. I think knowing that he was in the control booth made everyone play harder and reach for things that we maybe would not have reached for."