Category Archives: Quick Listen

Quick Listen ~~ Ambrose Akinmusire – When the Heart Emerges Glistening

I Got a hold of Ambrose Akinmusire’s sophomore effort, When the Heart Emerges Glistening. I have to admit, I was not much of a fan of his debut Prelude: To Cora, (I actually think the best tune on it is one written by a sideman), but was at least somewhat pleased to hear that he himself is not much of a fan of it anymore either (although everyone says they hate their first record). But at least Ambrose is being given a second chance at a debut: When the Heart Emerges Glistening is his first on Blue Note, and thus he can convince himself and others that this is, in fact, the real, debut.

Ambrose Akinmusire has been running a consistent band for a few years now, so I was not surprised to feel their presence immediately on the album. “Urgency” is a word used too much to describe this type of music, but you really can hear it here: Akinmusire, saxophonist Walter Smith III, pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Justin Brown have something to prove, and are trying to push into new places.

Many of the compositions, despite clearly having been written with strict forms and traditional assignments, have grown out of their constraints into more loose, flowing vehicles. This applies as much to melody statements as to solo sections. There is a lot of back and forth between the horns, as well as with the pianist. Boundaries that many are familiar with are loosening up, and the band is so comfortable with each other that they don’t mind stepping on each others feet in unexpected and constructive ways.

If the album and track titles hint at pretentiousness, Ambrose’s trumpet playing is void of it. He is certainly striving for a new sound: his heavily intervalic playing is quite unprecedented and requires a deep ear for harmony. But even though his ability lends itself to perfectionism, there is nothing “perfect” about it. His notes still crack and his leaps of faith sometimes fail, but when they do it just makes it all the more evident that his goal is to push himself constantly, even in the recording studio, and that in turn makes his playing very exciting to listen to.

Six songs into the album, however, few curveballs have been thrown. The band settles into a consistency that may or may not have been intended. “Confessions To My Unborn Daughter”, “Jaya”,  and “Henya” all have a loose groove, mild, lumbering tempos and very similar, dark harmonic timbres. But the second half of the disc changes things up a little. The use of the celeste  on “Ayneh (Cora)” is interesting, and makes for a nice contrast to a still similar tone. On “My Name Is Oscar”, Ambrose ventures into poetry on what was a pre-recorded drum solo. Its a unique use of recording-session-runoff, but I’m not sure that the result is consistent with the remainder of the album.

Tempos and instrumentations continue to change, with the trumpet/piano duet on “What’s New” an especially nice touch. But much of the second half in the end seems like a series of interludes, with few if any concrete statements. This isn’t exactly justified with the album’s closing either, which is on a low-note despite not really coming down from anywhere. In the end it seems as if the disc is split in half, with a Part 1 and a Part 2 having completely different purposes. When taken as a whole, i’m not entirely convinced it works, but if you subconsciously separate them, their statement becomes more powerful.

Jason Moran had some good ideas on the production end; I particularly like the use of panning, which adds even more atmosphere to the relaxed banter between the horns during solos and trading. The translation of both Smith’s tenor and Akinmusire’s trumpet through the studio was done very well, I don’t think much was lost there in terms of tone quality.

I think it’s hard with a band with so much to offer to come out of the studio with a clear and concise message, and in fact I think the inconsistency of it coupled with the band’s emphatic risk-taking makes When The Heart Emerges Glistening way more exciting as a record than something that works right off the bat, and I can’t wait to listen again.

Quick Listen ~~ John Ellis “One Foot In The Swamp”

I’ve owned this album for a while, but until now had never given it a full listen through. I was prompted to do so after reading the argument that is standing between Chris Kelsey, Graham Collier and David Adler concerning certain qualifications of music. One thing in particular that Kelsey is getting heat for is writing off John Ellis’ album Roots, Branches and Leaves as just another “neo-bop record”. I have always had an ambivalent opinion of Ellis, so I decided to give One Foot in the Swamp (Ellis’ next release after Roots, Branches and Leaves) a good listen through. My ambivalance still stands. While I respect Ellis for his desire to push this music forward compositionally, much of his music (and musical choices) remains extremely choppy and inconsistent. “Work In Progress” is a good example of this: each of the many different sections move to and from each other without much of an audible connection, and the transitions often sound extremely abrupt and unrehearsed. In addition, Ellis’ desire to combine as many different influences into one record becomes an information overload. The best tracks end up being the ones where he avoids all the superfluous electronics and effects and drastic mood changes. This goes for the compositions too: the most memorable remain the simplest, country-based themes (“Sippin’ Cider”, “Happy”, “One For the Kelpers”) where Ellis avoids becoming too self indulgent. When done listening to the recording one cannot deny that Ellis has a lot to offer, but the way he expresses himself makes you think he might even have too much. Knowing that each of his albums is an exercise on a different theme with a completely different band and instrumentation illustrates a musician who is lost in modernity. Perhaps once he settles down into a specific niche and works on developing it will we really see his potential realized .