There is considerable excitement in hearing an artist with the ambition and accomplishment of trumpeter Ambrose Akinsusire as he pares back the tools he brings to a new project. Although his quartet featuring pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Justin Brown has been a staple of his arsenal for years, his last two studio recordings featured string players, rappers, contributions from singer-songwriters, and more, all bringing a huge array of colors and interest to his vision. These acclaimed Blue Note recordings weren’t overproduced as much as they were works of reach, of expansion.
on the tender spot of every calloused moment is also ambitious and rich in different colors, but it puts the spotlight more clearly on the quartet alone. Although two of the 11 tracks momentarily spotlight singers Jesus Diaz and Genevieve Artadi, they are not as central to their tracks as, say, Becca Stevens was to the song she wrote for Akinsusire’s the imagined savior is far easier to paint in 2014. Rather, the new recording dares Akinmusire to achieve his varied goals within a narrower palette. It cranks up the tension, and Akinmusire delivers the goods.
Among his many strengths, this exceptional improviser and soloist is very good at steering away from the expected. From the first moments of his 2011 Blue Note debut when the heart emerges glistening, Akinmusire has demonstrated a fresh trumpet voice. He uses a range of tonal colors with exceptional control, and he can mine unusual intervals in creating melodies that rarely sounded like “the usual” blues-based licks that jazz players had been leaning on for decades. To find a new sound and approach—neither neo-traditional nor simply discordant—in jazz’s second decade? Wow.
That trumpet voice is fully on display on tender spot, as is Akinmusire’s ability to guide his quartet through a set of performances that can sound as varied as any of his more elaborate sets. Unlike 2017’s A Rift in the Decorum: Live at the Village Vanguard, Akinmusire allows Harris some electric sounds and brings in those two guest vocals. But it remains that there is no small group that is more capable of vaulting from one sound or approach to another. The band captures post-bop impressionism in a stunning bottle on “Mr. Roscoe (consider the simultaneous)”, achieves sublime atmosphere through atonal playing on “Blues (We measure the heart with a fist)”, and also has a gear that is precise and complex in the new jazz style on “Moon (the return amplifies the unity)”.
As you might imagine, the band often moves from one mode to another on a single performance. The opening track, “Tide of Hyacinth”, begins with two-plus minutes of measured free improvisation across a wide range. It’s followed the entry of a rolling piano figure in tumbling 4/4 time that allows Harris to play ferociously varied chordal figures and arpeggios as the band pushes him and pulls him back to the melody. A brief composed duet for just piano and trumpet then introduces a new Afro-Cuban rhythm that allows Jesus Diaz to enter with a sung interlude with overdubbed harmony in an African language. Only after this does Akinmusire take his first real “jazz”-type solo over Brown and Raghavan’s roiling polyrhythmic groove.
Is that too much business in a single composition? Akinmusire may have anticipated such a thought, as the next performance on the album is “Yessss”, a somber textural exercise that stays largely within a single, gorgeous tonal area. The opening theme is beautifully composed for trumpet, piano, and bowed bass in consonant sonic beauty, every instrument in about the same range at first—trumpet low in its range, acoustic bass high, piano in the middle, all blending expertly—and then welcoming Brown’s drums to the procession. Harris layers a humming analog synth above the patient solo that follows for Akinmusire. You might call the track soothing were it not for the tensile power of the improvising.
This patient approach often recurs on tender spot. “reset (quiet victories & celebrated defeats)” is a dead-slow ballad that allows Akinmusire to play in his higher but still smooth upper register, often in a careful octave with Harris’s single-note piano line. The band plays mostly simple whole notes beneath him, each rung like a breath taken in free, relative time. And the stately “Roy” (I suspect a tribute to the recently passed trumpeter Roy Hargrove) is another tune with a processional feeling that remains consonant. Brown’s brushes nudge it along, with Harris’s gorgeous blues-tinted minor piano part interlocking with the trumpet in a manner spare but riveting. In the last moment, just before the track ends, Akinmusire half-valves his horn into a twist of blues playing that sounds like a beautiful sob.
Raghavan gets a solo feature at the beginning of “An Interlude (that get’ more intense)”, staying low and throbbing before the band enters with a flowing theme that recalls the mood of Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”. Brown, Raghavan, and Harris evoke that famous rhythm section under the trumpet lead, which moves from composed to improvised elements and back again with grace. Harris plays his best solo of the session here, not crashing the way McCoy Tyner would have, but rising in waves that chime and bring the sunlight in.
Perhaps the three most unusual modes that Alkinmusire gets out of the band are simply achieved through subtraction. “4623” is a 30-second improvisation for just his trumpet, recorded a bit off-microphone such that the overtones of this series of brilliant flurries seem like a second instrument in unison with the leader. “cynical sideliners” is a duet for Genevieve Artadi’s whispered vocal and Harris playing a Fender Rhodes electric piano. It is a glistening harmonic puzzle that seems to rotate around in a romantic circle: “Here’s what’s true / It’s you / Only you / It’s true / Here’s what’s true / It’s you”, with Harris’s chords shifting like a microscope looking for something tiny and beautiful.
The most haunting of all is the other track that features Rhodes, “Hooded procession (read the names aloud)”. Harris rings a series of chords, with decaying notes, held just long enough before the next cluster is hit. Again, it is a (literal) procession. And if the title suggests graduation, then at the moment of this recording’s release in early June of 2020, it also suggests a different kind of reading of names, a different kind of litany. On Akinmusire’s 2014 recording, he brought us “Rollcall for Those Absent”, with a child’s voice reciting the names of black Americans murdered by police or through other racist violence, and the new track suggests something similar. But here, there is no voice, just Harris’s plaintive accompaniment. The suggestion is that it’s time for the listener to provide that recitation, to “read the names aloud” her or himself. And the list keeps getting longer, day to day, so why even try to update it?
This is final track on on the tender spot of every calloused moment, and it suggests the meaning of Akinmusire’s ambiguous album title. Soft and tough are both good words for this astonishing quartet and its latest work. It is a recording of a mature artist who seems in the process of embracing both the breadth of his interests and the focus of which he is capable. Tough and tender, both, Ambrose Akinmusire is making creative music that burns with personal intensity, expressing feeling through a modern jazz language that encompasses post-bop impressionism, Coltrane-esque incantation, improvisation beyond chord changes, and the 21st-century new jazz of complex composition.
Akinmusire seems particularly mature as an artist and particularly within the “jazz” tradition because his work, daring and modern and moving easily across boundaries, is still grounded in some of the core jazz values. Those are the primacy of blues playing, the vitality of distinctive and individual sound, and healthy and creative engagement within the popular music of the time, and engagement with his culture, socially politically. He is individual enough to evade facile comparisons to his predecessors. Still, in how he stands as part of this tradition, he is reminiscent of folks like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, as well as Cecil Taylor or Julius Hemphill. He had inherited much, and work like on the tender spot of every calloused moment if giving a great deal back as well.