Really great new work from leading young trumpeters
Trumpeters Ambrose Akinmusire and Jonathan Finlayson have a lot in common. Both are 36 years old, grew up in the Bay Area, were mentored by alto saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman, and are widely hailed for their virtuosity and composing acumen. Yet, their career paths and new recordings are striking contrasts. On “Origami Harvest” (Blue Note), Mr. Akinmusire offers a sprawling set of music that features spoken word and a string quartet. Mr. Finlayson’s “3 Times Round” (Pi Recordings) features his sextet and suggests a postmillennial updating of the riveting and ambitious small-combo straight-ahead jazz from the ’60s. Both albums are out now.
“3 Times Round” is Mr. Finlayson’s third recording as a leader and his first with this band. Most of his work as a sideman has been in bands that are often commended for the rhythmic complexity of their music: several ensembles led by Mr. Coleman, an octet led by alto saxophonist Steve Lehman, and various groups led by guitarist Mary Halvorson.\ Yet on his first recordings, which were with his quintet Sicilian Defense, the music was frequently elegant and lyrical. “3 Times” opens with “Feints,” a track reminiscent of his usual employers. There’s an urgency to the tempo and stuttering beats. The frontline, Messrs. Finlayson and Lehman and tenor saxophonist Brian Settles, engage in furious interplay building the tension further. It is reminiscent of ’60s classics like Andrew Hill’s “Point of Departure” or Lee Morgan’s “Search for the New Land” (both Blue Note). The recording’s highlight is a more ruminative composition, “The Moon is New,” which occurs toward the middle of the program; it features dazzling solos from Mr. Lehman and pianist Matt Mitchell. From there the music builds steadily toward the intensity it had at the album’s start, creating a sense of overall narrative abetted by stellar solos and compositions.
With the music on “Origami Harvest,” Mr Akinmusire joins a growing number of young jazz musicians who are successfully melding the string-quartet format with intimate jazz settings. As is true for the work of the bassist Linda May Han Oh, the vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jen Shyu, and the saxophonist Miguel Zenon, the strings function both individually and as a unit providing counterpoint to the lead instruments and cornerstone parts of the harmonies.
Mr. Akinmusire also excels in weaving the hip-hop-inspired cadences of spoken word artists into the music without making the blend seem forced. The titles of Mr. Akinmusire’s pieces such as “Blooming Bloodfruit in a Hoodie” and “The Lingering Velocity of the Dead’s Ambitions” convey his dismay with the social conditions in America today, yet the presentation is not a polemic. The highlight of the recording is “Particle/Spectra,” a cinematic work with gorgeous textures and delicate vocals by LmbrJck_t.
Messrs. Akinmusire and Finlayson, who have been friends since grade school, met Mr. Coleman when they were in high school. The esteemed saxophonist first encountered them at a jazz festival where they were part of a student band and then when he was in the Bay Area to conduct workshops. Mr. Finlayson joined Five Elements, Mr. Coleman’s primary band, when he was 18 years old, and he has remained an integral part of the group. Mr. Akinmusire joined Mr. Coleman’s band, too, but he left to study first at the Manhattan School of Music then at the University of Southern California. He won the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Trumpet competition. He moved back to Oakland, Calif., last year after a decade as a first-call trumpeter on the New York scene.
These recordings reveal one important similarity. Messrs. Akinmusire and Finlayson prefer to explore the textures of their instrument’s sound rather than reach for its peaks. That’s characteristic of several other trumpeters and cornetists on the scene, including Taylor Ho Bynum, Adam O’Farrill and Nate Wooley. The trumpet was once the most flamboyant instrument in jazz; it is now becoming one of the most introspective.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.