Experimental Composer/Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire Melds Hip-hop, Jazz, Funk, Spoken Word & Soul On ‘Origami Harvest (ALBUM REVIEW)

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This could well be one of the most unusual and interesting albums you’ve heard.  Yes, this is a banner year for cross -genre efforts and we’ve recently heard the merging of classical and jazz from Kamasi Washington and Wayne Shorter to name just a couple of artists.  Robert Glasper blended several genres with R+R=Now and there are other examples too. But here we have not so much a blend, but opposites and yet the album stays remarkably fluid throughout.  Trumpeter and composer Ambrose Akinmusire has already cut some daring paths on his first three releases but Origami Harvest is stunning and mind-bending.  

Akinmusire answered a big challenge from a commission from curators Judd Greenstein of Manhattan’s Ecstatic Music Festival and Kate Nordstrum of St. Paul’s Liquid Music Series with Greenstein asking, “What’s the craziest idea you have?” Akinmusire’s response was to do a project about extremes and putting thins that seemingly opposite right next to each other. The music involves New York’s MIvos Quartet and art-rap expatriate Kool A.D. – contemporary classical with deconstructed hip-hop, with adventurous jazz, funk, spoken word and soul. All six extended tracks feature seven to nine musicians with the Mivos Quartet present on all.

These songs respond to the current political climate, especially in terms of black lives victimized by structural racism. Akinmusire says, “Origami refers to the different ways black people, especially men, have to fold, whether in failure or to fit in a mold. Then I had a son while writing this and I thought about these cycles repeating: Harvest.” Interestingly, strings are used throughout the album to create time and space because Akinmusire feels that we don’t have time to stop and breathe in today’s political environment.

The lower-case song titles match the complexity of this effort. “a blooming blood fruit in a hoodie” opens, named for Trayvon’s Martin’s tragic death. Yet , this tune may have the album’s brightest tones and most accessible grooves. Drummer Marcus Gilmore keeps shifting the beast while Sam Harris plays shimmering piano. Akinmusire’s trumpet’s in the mix along with Kool A,D. rapping.  Beneath it all, the Mivos Quartet provides calming, rather melancholy backdrop. “Miracle and Streetfight” has some avant-garde elements. Kool A.D. is getting agitated – “America! Americana! America -nah! The big monster!” Guest tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III offers some respite, MIvos again calming before it morphs into a free-form jazz session with Akinmusire’s trumpet summoning blues as the tune fades.  Moods, tempos, and tonality change suddenly and frequently. “Americana/the garden waits for you to match her wilderness” has repetitive and hypnotic like sequences across frenzied percussion and a meandering synth.

Akinmusire originally hails from Oakland but spent time on both coasts in schools and honing his craft. This is his first album since returning to his home town. He clearly has protest in mind. On “Free, White and 21,” a popular catchphrase in pre-‘50s America, has Akinmusire, as he’s done on his prior two albums, reading the names of African-Americans killed by police, or would-be vigilantes, over music. He intends for it to be annoying because we’re still in the same place we were when he made his first Blue Note album.

Prior to that piece, we hear “particle/spectra” – a dark classical piece that brings with it some soul from Oklahoma City singer Limbrik_T.  as it builds before retreating to Mivos. The finale, “the lingering velocity of the dead’s ambitions” is the most chaotic piece with strings sawing wilding amidst the trumpet cries, off-key piano, and trumpet stutters until we get, literally one last abrupt gasp. It’s a startling way to end the album. Yet, it has the effect of wanting to replay the album in its entirety for fear of having missed something the first time.

Akinmusire performed these pieces live before deciding he had to record them. He asked his musicians to hit the studio the next day and, fortunately all agreed. It has taken him a year to write, and pardon the term, but he wanted to harvest it. Akinmusire had laid out the opposites this way – masculine and feminine, high and low art, free improvisations versus controlled calculation, American ghettos and American affluence. He thought he had put them so close together that it would highlight the fact that there isn’t as much space between extremes as we think. He’s not sure he succeeded.  That’s up to you to decide.

From the deathly quiet of chamber music recital hall to a smoky late night jazz club to a boisterous protest- filled street, Akinmusire changes it up. You have to stay focused to soak in the brilliance of this recording. It may stun you.

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