- Program:Jazz Studies
- Division:Contemporary Music
- Expertise:Jazz Studies
A spiritual seeker in the grand tradition of musical aspirationalists, trumpeter/composer Ambrose Akinmusire refuses to rest on his already considerable laurels. Ceaselessly exploring new territory and expanding his personal sonic vocabulary, Akinmusire has from the beginning of his young but remarkable career staked his place at the vanguard of jazz and artistic expression.
Akinmusire’s two CDs, Prelude to Cora (Fresh Sound New Talent) and When the Heart Emerges Glistening (Blue Note), were both met with critical acclaim, marking him as a composer and conceptualist to watch. The latter album topped critics’ lists including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Allmusic.com. NPR Music referred to When the Heart Emerges Glistening as “a svelte and darkly modernistic disc highlighted by Akinmusire’s clarion solos,” while the New York Times hailed it as “one of this year’s standout jazz releases.” The album earned Akinmusire France’s Grand Prix l’Academie du Jazz.
The nomadic trumpeter has traced a zigzagging pattern between coasts from his native California to the hectic jazz capital of New York. He can currently be found in Los Angeles, where he’s teaching at University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. He has played on stages around the globe, including in India, Vietnam, Australia, Turkey, Japan, and Brazil, and at international festivals such as the North Sea Jazz Festival, Copenhagen Jazz Festival, Umbria Jazz Festival, and Barcelona Jazz Festival.
Akinmusire’s forward-reaching compositions have earned him a commission from New York’s Jazz Gallery and grants from the Rockefeller Foundation’s MAP Fund and Chamber Music America’s French-American Jazz Exchange Program. In 2011, he debuted his star-studded Big Band on one of the world’s most renowned stages, Carnegie Hall. The following year he was named Artist-in-Residence at the 55th annual Monterey Jazz Festival.
The son of a father from Nigeria and a mother from Mississippi, Akinmusire was raised in Oakland, California, where his spiritual and musical path was set during near-daily visits to church with his mother and grandmother. Every time they entered the building, young Ambrose would run to the piano, which his family accepted as a sign of his musical inclinations. He began playing piano at the age of three, switching to drums in the fifth grade and finally to the trumpet the following year.
During middle school, Akinmusire attended a jazz camp run by local Bay Area musicians, which fully exposed him to the music whose expansive parameters were broad enough for his ambitious imagination. Through the connections forged there he had the opportunity to meet and play with greats like Billy Higgins, Sonny Simmons and Joe Henderson. At Berkeley High School he met Joshua Redman and Steve Coleman, who enlisted the young trumpeter to tour Europe with his band Five Elements.
A full scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music led to Akinmusire’s first move to New York, followed by a return to the west coast to earn his master’s degree at USC and to attend the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. After finishing school and winning the Monk competition, he returned to New York, where he’s worked with a stunning array of jazz’s finest musicians.
Akinmusire’s main outlet is his quintet with drummer and childhood friend Justin Brown, bassist Harish Raghavan, saxophonist Walter Smith III, and pianist Sam Harris. The band is skilled and flexible enough to evolve with Akinmusire and to follow his lead. The Los Angeles Times wrote that the 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.” Alongside the group, however, he continues to branch into other avenues, necessary for an artist whose influences encompass Wayne Shorter and Bjork, Joni Mitchell and Pina Bausch, Ravel and Marina Abramovic.
Akinmusire’s music overflows with both beauty and rigor, profound personal feeling and fiery virtuoso playing. What one hears throughout his work is an artist plumbing the depths of himself and the world around him, coming to understand the workings of his own mind and the mysteries of nature. Both of those terrains are boundless, and Akinmusire is determined to follow them as far afield as they lead.