Saturday, December 10, 2011

Ambrose Akinmusire Live - DownBeat

LA Experiences Miles Through Ambrose

Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire's quintet performed an achingly subdued tribute to Miles Davis' most publicly accessible period on Oct. 22 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts' Samueli Theater in Costa Mesa, Calif. Over the course of 75 minutes, with the aid of three projection screens, a handful of raspy audio clips and a live narrator, the band addressed Davis' transition from bop-soaked youth to swaggering king of cool - while working hard to resist the expectation of a tribute.

Akinmusire quickly established himself as more than capable but was disinterested in filling Davis' shoes, opening the show with a solo workout that highlighted his impeccable precision. He evoked tea kettle whistles and tube radio hues, and was later joined by the rest of his young band: Walter Smith III on tenor saxophone, Sam Harris on piano, Marcus Shelby on bass and Justin Brown on drums.

During an early performance of Sonny Rollins' "Airegin," Akinmusire and Smith drove hard over the propulsive rhythm section. Their momentum was derailed by narrator Donald Lacy Jr.'s forced beatnik patter and a slideshow that highlighted available merchandise in the lobby. It was unfortunate that all the bells and whistles distracted from the music.

Members of the band rarely raised their sound above a whisper, leaning heavily on atmospheric ballads and contemplative solos. In a more characteristic Davis move, Akinmusire, aside from the occasional nod or smile, never communicated with the audience through anything but his trumpet.

One of Akinmusire's many talents as a leader is his willingness to relinquish the spotlight. Smith evoked Bach and Coltrane during a brief solo turn, and Brown got a moment to display his funky thunder following an audio clip of Davis linking James Brown and Kind of Blue. Harris offered a wandering solo and a run through "'Round Midnight" in a piano trio, adhering to the casual cool that dominated the evening. The band reconvened for a gentle spin on "Flamenco Sketches." Akinmusire provided his own delicate take on Davis' modal swirls, but the evening ended abruptly with Akinmusire and Harris intertwined in a meditative duet.

Akinmusire and his band are a wonderfully talented collection of musicians who were unable to unleash their full fiery potential. Their professional sheen only allowed a few windows for genuine spontaneity. It would be interesting to see them tackle the next decade of Davis' life and raise the pulse.

Akinmusire @ DownBeat

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