Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire has been recognized as one of the most innovative and exciting new voices in jazz. His debut on Blue Note Records, When the Heart Emerges Glistening, has received glowing reviews, and the Jazz Journalists Association has named him both the Up and Coming Artist of the Year and Trumpeter of the Year. He recently sat down with Jeff Tamarkin to discuss his December 3 concert in Zankel Hall—his first with the big band of his own creation.
The big-band format is quite a departure from your usual quintet. Why did you choose this route?
I had been thinking about the lack of community in the New York jazz scene among African American musicians, so I put together this band. It’s not because I want to reclaim the music, but just because I miss the community. I want us to socialize—that was more the goal than the music itself.
Will you be playing new music exclusively?
Yes and no. I’ve been writing big-band compositions for the past year and I realized it’s not the thing that I do best. So I hired an arranger, Sherisse Rogers. She’s taken some of my old compositions, and some new ones I haven’t recorded, and done orchestrations and arrangements.
Did you have a specific goal in mind when you began recording When the Heart Emerges Glistening?
The band has been playing together for years, so I just wanted to document that. I wanted the listeners to feel like they were sitting on the stage with us. I just wanted it to be raw and beautiful at the same time.
What does the album title refer to?
It’s about being honest with yourself. The heart glistens because it’s fresh and in the moment. I really believe that until human beings become honest with ourselves, we can’t really interact with each other 100 percent; we can’t change anything in the world.
You had a prior album in 2008 called Prelude (to Cora). What have you learned since then that you incorporated into the new one?
A lot. In the years since, I did 30 or 40 other albums as a sideman. I learned how to relax in the studio. The first album was so daunting. I tried to play like I was on the bandstand and that just didn’t work.
What made the greatest impression on you when you moved to New York to attend the Manhattan School of Music?
The pace! It was mad. It’s the polar opposite of the Bay Area, which is so laid back. There isn’t any place faster paced than New York. I thought everyone here was over-caffeinated. It was like jumping on a treadmill. I fell off a few times, but eventually I found my stride.
You next attended the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Los Angeles. What was that like?
It changed my life. I call it the "jazz real world." I learned so much about myself and how I related to other people and how people saw me. Before that, people thought I was a crazy guy.
Winning the Jazz Journalists Association honors must have been a thrill.
I would love to be one of those jazz musicians who says they don’t care about the critics, but it’s great to be appreciated, especially by the older journalists who have heard all the trumpet players that have come up over the past 30 years. The up-and-coming thing was great, but I don’t known if I deserved the trumpet award.
You’re not yet 30. Does it bother you when some people, even critics, say that the best years of jazz are in the past?
I’m aware of it, but I don’t know if it bothers me. I think I’m too busy creating music to be bothered by it. I guess the reaction it elicits in me is more like a smirk. It’s kind of funny, actually.
Jeff Tamarkin is associate editor of JazzTimes magazine.
Related: December 3, Ambrose Akinmusire Big Band