Ambrose Akinmusire Interview
Madrid International Jazz Festival
On the evening of November 21st, I had the pleasure of interviewing one of the flagships of the renewal impulse that runs through contemporary black music, the Californian trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, one of the most restless and creative musicians of his generation who is reshaping the jazz tradition.
The interview was done moments before his live quartet, completed with Micah Thomas, Harish Raghavan and Kweku Sumbry, took the stage at the Fernando Fernán Gómez Theater, within the Madrid International Jazz Festival 2021.
In & Out JAZZ: Why is Origami Harvest not released on vinyl yet?
Ambrose Akinmusire: Oh, I have a very easy answer: because there’s a lyric, just one lyric, that Blue Note didn’t like. And they didn’t want to get slapped by people. That’s the only reason. I won’t say what the lyrics are! It was pushing a little hard… That’s the only reason.
I have read that your parents were very religious and that your mother played piano in church. In your work there is a spiritual dimension that goes beyond the music, similar to the spiritual dimension of John Coltrane. In your opinion, what personal and musical elements must coexist to reach that spirituality?
For me it has to be a willness to wrestle with the ego and to get rid of the self. So the music can come inside you and come out as opposed to everything being produced from your head. So all of the practices that I do is to make sure that the music can just come out as it wants. So I practice technical things on my trumpet so the music doesn’t run against any technical limitations, and I do practice on myself and my ego so that when the music comes inside of me I don’t judge it. Si I think that is maybe the first thing that must happen or at least is the thing that I’m focusing the most on. Other things… I guess it’s just openness. Even as a jazz musician or a creative musician checking out other music and checking out other opinions, having conversations with people. And also… being willing to make mistakes and to fuck up and say “I’m sorry”. Even in life you can just… even as a creative person I try just do what I gotta do and if I fuck it up say: “Sorry, my intentions weren’t bad”. That’s also part of life so… I think those three things are the things I am focused on for a long time.
You seem incredibly free in everything you do. What does the concept of freedom mean for you and for your music?
No one has ever asked me that… Free… When I think of freedom I think of dancing within a frame because if there’s no frame, then it is chaos. If there’s no rules, there’s no frame, then it’s chaos. So for me it is finding ways to be creative with all the rules. Musically that’s what freedom means for me. But if we talk about free jazz and the free movement, I think that free jazz is what comes after the blues, you know. It’s like the next sound of the blues, where the blues is a little bit more optimistic, the free jazz and things associated with that are just expressing the pain in a very visible way. And freedom on my instrument just means being able to play what music says to play.
So, in that way, it means a lot of practice…
It means too much practice. I practice a lot, yes. I practice to be free. I even practice if I play an ugly sound… The freedom in terms of technique is to not be there. I practice so I can be on stage and just play what it comes through. I know that I’m not the one making the music. That also is a form of freedom. I don’t have the pressure to come up with all this amazing stuff because I really believe that it’s already there. I just have to submit to it. If I can do that it just comes out.
You are the medium.
Exactly. And that’s free. I don’t have to create it, I just have to stand there. I have done all the work before that.
You are always searching for new ways of expression and you’ve displayed a huge range of sounds and styles throughout your career. Does your work start from improvisation?
When I was younger I could write music very easily and then I stopped for many years, I stopped writing music. And then I realized that I have to find ways of walking to the muse and sometimes that’s writing the story or playing games with numbers, but that’s just to get me to the point where I’m interacting with the muse, and often all that stuff goes out of the window when I’m there. So the process of getting there is always changing but the getting there is where the creativity comes out.
Do you have any method to identify when you are on the right path?
Oh, no. When you are in the flow, you’re in the flow, you know? It’s like in basketball: after shooting you know if you are in the flow. It’s like you enter that magic zone and you just know. It’s just a feeling of something else taking over and you really have to fight to not come up with that. Things that take you out of there are judgement and ego. So when you are there… I feel it. And I rush to put it on a paper before my ego says it sucks or it’s amazing.
Do you record yourself?
Not every time, but a lot.
Do you come back to those recordings?
No, not really. Sometimes, if I have a big project, I’d listen to the stuff and try to see if I heard something.
What is your experience with Fresh Sound Records?
I did one record with Fresh Sound, the first one, and my friend Walter Smith did one or two that I did. The experience was great. Jordi was very supportive to a lot of musicians that nobody knew who we were. I didn’t meet him until years later. He’d always respond to the emails and send the money… he was cool. He let us do whatever we wanted to do. Furthermore, he didn’t say: “I want a jazz record”. My first record has an opera singer, it has all this crazy stuff, you know… I really have a lot of love for Jordi and what he’s done for not only me but for my generation and the generation before us, just giving us a start and giving us experience in recording and creating a CD. I think that without Fresh Sound a lot of people wouldn’t have careers and maybe a whole generation wouldn’t had been heard.
You have managed to innovate from a deep knowledge of traditional music but what are your references or pillars in music?
Joni Mitchell, number one, Björk, John Coltrane, Clifford Brown, Bud Powell and Benny Carter. Those would be my strong people. Björk is the last musician that I really want to play with. I’ve played with Jonny, I’ve played with Herbie (Hancock), Wayne (Shorter), Kendrick Lamar… all those people I’ve played with but not with Börjk. If I go to one of her concerts I would sit in the front row… I can’t wait. I know it’s written. I really like people that you hear and think “Where does this come from?”. You can hear references but they just drop it down so complete, out of nowhere.
That’s exactly what you’ve done.
Oh, no! (Laughs). Thank you…
What are the most important learnings you got as a musician, since your beginnings with Steve Coleman and the Five Elements until today?
Oh, very easy. The most important thing I’ve learned is simple: try to be a good human. Just try to be a great human being. Be responsible for how you make people feel. That’s the biggest lesson that I’ve learned. Because I’ve got to meet and play with all my heroes and that’s the one thing they all have. Herbie, Wayne, Ron Carter… all these people. They all feel the same, they are generous, open and warm. So that’s been the biggest lesson so far in my career.
You are an artist who has taken jazz to another level. Was this a premeditated idea and where does your creative force lie?
Was it premeditated? Yes and no. Yes in the sense that I believe in innovation; a lot of people don’t and more specifically I believe in innovation being a part of the Black tradition. So yes, it was premeditated. But, did I sit down and say: “I want to come up with something new”? No. Do I think that I came up with something new? Not really. But I understand why people say that.
‘Origami Harvest’ is a jazz-hip hop album, but ‘On The Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment’ is more of a blues album, like it is connected with your first album. How do you feel about this?
It’s connected through very specific comparison: it’s me knowing who I am in the last album and who I was in the first album. I was there standing with my eyes closed in a suit, feeling the pressure and all this, and in this last one it’s me standing near in a hoodie with my locks, and the first one had all these colors coming at me while the last one is just a stark black and white with no design… Also musically: the first album starts with a trumpet intro and the last album starts with a trumpet intro, so there are some things there that in a way make me think as if the last album is the first album grown up. And that’s the way I feel about it. It feels like the right time to complete the circle. And also, I’m a little less… I don’t want to say “optimistic” but I’m much more connected with reality now than then. I feel like now I’m super straight in everything like in aesthetics, my personality, I don’t give a fuck what people think about me and all this other stuff, and I don’t feel the pressure in anything… In the first album I thought I was walking into something so grand and now I feel like at any moment I can walk away from this and be fine. So that’s another thing about these two albums and how they are linked to each other.
So now that the circle seems closed, what is your next project?
To start multiple circles, not just one anymore, and have them developing all over the place in coexistence.
As a modern jazz reference, what kind of advice would you give to new generations of jazz musicians?
Just work hard and say “Fuck it!”. Not often… (laughs) but don’t be afraid to do that. And be a good guy. Also for me, the inspiration and the reason I do this is not about me for a long time. I do this because now there’s two or three generations underneath me that look up to me, so I know that I’m the inspirations for thousands and thousands of people around the world like some of my heroes, like the way Roy Hargrove was for us or Winton (Marsalis) or Herbie (Hancock), I’m that for a lot of people. So that’s been clear for me for a while. But before, yeah… I didn’t even have the luxury of thinking about inspiration. I was just working my ass off. I often tell my students that it is a luxury not to be inspired. Being an African-American and having such a culture, you know, people were slaves for three hundred years and stuff… they weren’t inspired to pick cotton, but they had to do it. So I imagine that playing the trumpet or creating music is easy, you know? I also grew up with my Mum and saw here working 9 to 5, five days a week and sometimes working overtime on a weekend doing something she didn’t like doing… so that’s inspiring for me. That’s always been there since I was a kid. So I personally never had deep vaults of being uninspired. Sure there are times where I don’t feel like practicing, like some times you go to bed and don’t want to brush your teeth, but you have to do it. So that’s the way I see it.
What does music mean to you?
It’s humans trying to sonicly represent love and nature. I think that’s what it is for me.