Composer and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire makes his Nonesuch Records debut with Owl Song. The album features a trio with two musicians Akinmusire has long admired, guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Herlin Riley.
The news that Ambrose Akinmusire likes owls comes as no surprise once you start pondering the watchful patience and swooping accuracy of this California-raised trumpet virtuoso’s jazz creativity for the past 15 years. Showered with plaudits in that time (with comparisons with Miles Davis often among them), Akinmusire shares Miles’ belief that less is more. He called this beautiful trio album Owl Song because his favourite birds’ cool occupancy of their world mirrors this project’s search for space and precious time in a clamorous human habitat he considers “assaulted by information”.
“This is my reaction to being assaulted by information,” Akinmusire says of Owl Song. “This record is me wanting to create a safe space. Part of the challenge was: Can I create something that’s oriented around open space, the way some of the records I love the most do?”
He says of his collaborators, “I had a feeling of wanting to record with Bill from the first time we played—it was a duo performance, very little rehearsal. We just played through some of my songs, and it worked. One of Bill’s special gifts is the ability to shape a piece he’s just heard for the first time. He seems to know what the music wants before the first note.
“With Herlin, his commitment to beauty you can find in the groove. I never like to tell musicians too much about what I’m going for, because it should be about what these particular people bring … I said, ‘I know you’re the right person for this because of the way you approach the groove.’ And, of course, what he did is just beautiful.” He continues, “Also, I wanted to put people together who didn’t seem like they would go together … and it turns out they haven’t played a lot. So, it was cross generational, cross subgenre, cross whatever.”
Akinmusire could have just played Owl Song as an ambient reverie in duo with his legendarily harmonious guitar partner Bill Frisell – but it’s the mix of that vibe and the quietly swinging jazz grooves of sometime Wynton Marsalis drummer Herlin Riley that casts Owl Song’s particular spell. Version one of the title track opens to the whispering breeze of Riley’s brushes pulsing above soft bass drum thuds, before a slow trumpet theme of warm low sounds and long-tone falsetto resolutions is caressed by Frisell’s echoing guitar chords.
In the cannily timed swapping of paired figures with single tones on Weighted Corners or the unison ascents and descents of trumpet and guitar on Grace, this music is close to minimalism, but its palette embraces much more. Frisell mingles seamlessly circling trumpet figures, pitch-bending swirls and phrases like softly stuttering fanfares, Riley sets a New Orleans street march tattoo under wriggling postbop improv, and Owl Song 2’s opening procession of sedate single tones and padding tom-tom sounds becomes a ballad-like narrative, discovering its rapturous melody and harmony piece by sparingly-revealed piece. As befits the title, Owl Song doesn’t raise its voice much, but what it quietly says is joyously vivid, even spine-tingling.
Ambrose Akinmusire’s tonal control, focused fluency and effortless circular breathing make him the standout trumpeter of his generation. Now aged 41, his recordings take in up-to-the-minute jazz with Blue Note, neoclassical hip-hop on 2018’s Origami Harvest and tear-jerking romanticism with vocalist Dhafer Youssef on the recent Streets of Minarets. Owl Song, featuring a minimalist trio with Bill Frisell on guitar and Herlin Riley on drums, marks the trumpeter’s debut release on the Nonesuch label. Tempi are unhurried, textures nuanced and melodies clearly stated, though somewhat oblique. Akinmusire describes the new album as a reaction to being “assaulted by information”, an attempt to create and explore a safe space. The trumpeter wrote the music with this specific line-up in mind, and tailors his pinched notes, tumbling phrases and swooping upward leaps to fit the resonant precision of Frisell’s guitar. Long-held notes gain hints of breath and merge with an echoing twang of strings before soaring. Add in Riley’s sparse use of percussion and way of caressing the pulse, and the one-off ensemble becomes a heavenly match. It opens with a swish of brushes and two muffled beats from Riley’s bass drum. The pure melody of “Owl Song 1” conjures a pensive mood and the interweave of trumpet and guitar is close knit. (“Owl Song 2”, a ballad, comes later in the set.) “Weighted Corners” is next, built on arpeggiating guitar and nifty rhythms from Riley’s tambourine, before the plaintive sustains of “Flux Fuelings” unfold over a gently lolloping pulse. Two pieces are duets. “Mr Frisell” explores a mutual concern with timbre, texture and tonal control, and moves from anguish to emotional warmth. “Mr Riley” is built on the drummer’s expertly rendered New Orleans beats. Akinmusire captures the pulse by alternating muffled single-note riffs with precisely placed blasts. The album closes with the dramatic panoramas of “Henya”. Frisell and Akinmusire swap lead and support, notes swell and subside and drums deliver drama underneath.
1. Owl Song 1 (feat. Bill Frisell & Herlin Riley) (5:52)
2. Weighted Corners (feat. Bill Frisell & Herlin Riley) (4:24)
3. Flux Fuelings (feat. Bill Frisell & Herlin Riley) (5:03)
4. Owl Song 2 (feat. Bill Frisell & Herlin Riley) (6:28)
5. Grace (feat. Bill Frisell & Herlin Riley) (6:26)
6. Mr. Frisell (feat. Bill Frisell) (3:15)
7. Mr. Riley (feat. Herlin Riley) (3:27)
8. Henya (feat. Bill Frisell & Herlin Riley) (7:07)
Ambrose Akinmusire trumpet
Bill Frisell guitar
Herlin Riley drums