With his new album, Origami Harvest, Ambrose Akinmusire once again demonstrates the sheer creative freedom that runs through his compositions. Here is the Blue Note-signed American trumpeter discussing Origami Harvest in his own words.
Our ears first attuned to the sound of Ambrose Akinmusire ten years ago and we have remained attentive ever since. The writing on Origami Harvest is truly singular, unconcerned by the need to meet commercial requirements. Its titles oscillate between free-flow ten minute pieces and standard-format 3 minute songs, though even these defy convention. Elsewhere, the sound unfurls with abrupt changes in atmosphere, like the movements in a classical suite. His albums become immersive experiences; establishing complete worlds he has imagined based on the themes they contain. Full of anxiety and agitation, this latest inspiring creation confirms what many of us already knew, that Ambrose Akinmusire is one of the most remarkable musicians of his generation.
How do you feel the experience of making this album has been different to your previous work?
Maybe this time it was a little bit different because it was commission-based. I devised my own instrumentation but I was forced to think about where it would be performed. But this project came together in a very beautiful, organic way. Kool A.D. is actually a friend of mine. Originally I was going to use Moses Sumney, and then I thought about using Georgia Anne Muldrow. But whilst I was trying to figure out who should be part of it, Kool A.D. came to my house and I was sitting there and I looked at him and I was like, “Oh, yeah! Do you wanna do this project with me?” He was like “yeah, i’m down.”
What came first, the atmosphere, the different subjects or the actual music? Where was the primary source of inspiration?
Its really funny: if you put a back beat to something it changes everybody’s perception of it. But this stuff isn’t different to anything i’ve been doing, in my mind. I’ve kind of been talking about the same issues for a while because they reflect my life. But I thought a lot about extremes at the start. I wanted it to feel extremely tense and uncomfortable and to push that feeling as far as I could, right into those extreme regions and into the opposite of that, too.
Serenity… but with movement. Something about “serene” doesn’t encompass movement. So, the opposite of extreme, whatever that is. I wanted to push the two states together. But I didn’t want it to feel like it was seesawing between them. It needed to be a particular way and then, all of a sudden, to change states. That is the reason I don’t have a bass on it. I always feel like the bass acts as a kind of inbetween – between the drums and the keyboard or whatever else. That presented another challenge: how would I make this funky without a bass … is that even possible? The absence of a bass represents the absence of a middle, which was also something I began thinking about.
“I wish I didn’t have to engage with political issues”
Do you see a reflection of society in that idea?
Not so much in society. But if we want to talk about it politically … this is the first album i’m making since going back to where I grew up. And that has been a real head-trip because I am still confronted with some of the political issues that surround Oakland. But at the same time, gentrification is happening. And the trippy thing is that i’m actually part of the gentrification. You know, I bought a house, i’m somewhat successful … i’ve been going through all these head-trips and that can be a political thing as well.
But for every album I put out, people want to talk about politics. Yeah, sure, im making political statements but in reality this is just my life. Is a Palestinian throwing a rock over a the wall a political statement? Yes … but it is also just their life. They are not thinking “let me make a political statement.” It is what it is. And I wish I didn’t have to engage with political issues. I wish I could write about a beautiful bird flying in the fucking sky and not have a care in the world. But I live in Oakland. And inevitably, it has influenced the album.
In “Free, White, 21” there is a list of names and in between them you say “this is not a protest song.” What do you mean by that?
When I say “this is not a protest song” i’m saying that it’s not that simple. I’m also telling you not to dismiss it. It is not just a protest song. This is not just a case of pressing play and then stop. These are people’s lives. This is my life. And also, i’m tired of musicians using other people’s struggles to further their careers. Everybody has a Black Lives Matter song and they aren’t out protesting on the streets. That is another reason why I said it. I’ve been doing this shit since my first Blue Note album, before Black Lives Matter and all that stuff. This is me using a platform to educate people, to have these conversations.
One of the most beautiful moments i’ve experienced with it was when I was playing in Kiev and somebody asked me who Oscar Grant was. I thought that was so fucking beautiful. It gave me the opportunity to talk to a full audience about Oscar Grant – in Kiev! One thing I never normally say in interviews is that sometimes I imagine my name being read out loud with that list of names. I imagine someone else reading it and unfortunately, it is an easily conceivable image. The train I ride a few times a week goes right past the place where Oscar Grant was killed. So it plays a very active role in my life.
Do you feel progression in society?
Maybe in the younger generation. In today’s teenagers. They seem to get it and they seem to be erasing the lines of division in a way I find really compelling. They are doing it in race and gender, in society and in class-based issues, too. It gives me hope.
How do you feel about popular movies like Black Panther, Blackkklansman and shows like Atlanta that are immensely successful while being predicated on race issues? Are you happy with our discussion of these ideas in the mainstream?
To me, it is like turning up the dial on a radio. When you raise the volume, you raise the treble and you raise the bass as well. So, if there is more mainstream dialogue coming from the black community, maybe that is because there has been a heightened White Supremacist thing going on too, since Trump. If one thing rises, the rest does as well. So maybe nothing’s really changed but everything has gotten louder. And maybe that is what needs to happen before things switch for the better.
But I feel more racism now than I did before. Globally, racist people have been galvanised with their recent, whatever, “wins” around the world. If you look at Venezuela, if you look at Brazil, all over Europe … Russia, the Ukraine, all over the world, everything is kind of shitty. If you were to rewind the clock 6, 8, definitely 10 years, I think things would feel better than they do now. I’m aware it is a fucked up thing to say [laughs]! We can focus on the Blackkklansmans and the Black Panthers, but those things are a product of everything getting louder. By raising the volume, you aren’t changing the equalizer. To change the equalizer, you have to reach for the equalizer. Let me turn down the treble, we need some more bass in here [laughs]!
In order to affect change then, you would have to return to the basics?
For sure. But, you know, I am optimistic because I know that everything works in cycles. Before things get better they have to get really shitty. So whatever this energy is, whatever shit is going on, I know it will get better.
“I either want to be right in the fabric of the music or way up high, in order to really see what is going on”
The imagery in the lyrics is very visceral and the instrumentation conveys the same power. Do you ever think of music in visual terms?
All the time! Maybe I used to more than I do now. But I try to think of it visually and of course I think of it sonically. But whether the premise is sonic or visual, I try to go back and forth between a very wide-angle, aerial view before diving in deep and getting as technical as possible. Again, this reverts back to what I mean about a “middle.” I don’t want to be looking at music from a standard viewpoint. I either want to be right in the fabric of the music or way up high, in order to really see what is going on. I listen to music in the same way. It is either really loud or quite soft. No “middle” shit. It is hot or cold. Black or white. Other shit is indecisive. I don’t like that.
But I am a very visual person. I used to write titles way before composing and meditate on the story to really think about the characters – what they look like, what they feel like, what they smell like … all before I wrote the melody. The melody materialised from a character that I had already envisioned and interacted with. For this reason, I think at some point in my life I will end up writing film scores. It feels like the most natural thing for me to do at this point.
There are moments in the album when you are not playing. Where you are just there, above the music. Why weren’t you more present?
If you look back on my albums, I actually don’t really play that much trumpet. It was kind of the reason why I recorded the Vanguard album. I was like, “OK, you guys want me to play trumpet, i’m gonna give you two discs of trumpet quartet… live!”
Nine times out of ten i’ll finish the commission and i’ll just be like … “Oh shit I forgot the trumpet [laughs]!” I’ll forget to write my part because sometimes I just don’t hear it. Sometimes the trumpet just doesn’t sound that great with the other instruments that I love.
My favorite instrument is the Cello. Trumpets and cellos sound good together but I don’t know … I just never told people I was a trumpet player [Laughs]! I write, I also play the piano. That is another thing people don’t know about me – i’ve been playing piano longer than i’ve been playing trumpet and this album almost didn’t have any trumpet on it! If you hear a Ravel [Maurice] piece, and your never like “man come on Ravel, your not playing piano” [laughs]. Maria Schneider is a great piano player but she doesn’t play piano in her big band. I don’t see why I gotta play trumpet!
As a composer, do you think of instruments as having different characters, different personas?
For sure, for sure. And that changes, of course, depending on who is playing those instruments. I have been fortunate enough in my career to be able to hand-pick the players. This music was written for the Mivo String Quartet. Those guys specifically. This music was written for Marcus Gilmore on the drums and Sam Harris on the keyboard. Sometimes we have problems with people trying to book it. They’re like “can you use another string quartet?” I say: “no! It doesn’t work like that!”
Do they ask because it costs less?
Yeah that is why. But I kind of thought that this album would just live in the studio, that it wasn’t something that necessarily needed to be toured. Not everything you release needs to be toured or to have an album cycle. Sometimes albums are just meant to be listened to. For this album, I didn’t think about playing it live at all when I was making it.
What was the process with the lyrics?
Originally, I just wrote the music. I just wanted to write the frames and create the stage-plot for everything Kool A.D. wanted to do. When we played it together, I had cues for points where lyrics could come in and he just freestyled. It was a freestyle piece for him at the beginning. But when it came to the record I thought it would be better to get him to actually write some verses.
His command of the english language is just so profound, it’s amazing. I know he got famous from doing art-rap, where it is all about repetition. But I know the guy’s levels. He is brilliant and I wanted to get that on wax. So, I gave him the subject matter and explained the title of the project and we went from there. That was a long time before recording.
“I don’t think that clarity is the pinnacle of expression”
Some of the meanings feel a little out of reach at times. As an artist, are you trying to find clarity, or is it more of an expression of the disorder?
I don’t think that clarity is the pinnacle of expression. For me, there is something beyond that. And that is what i’m reaching for. And actually, that space above clarity is where abstraction starts to happen. It is where improv starts to come in. When I hear about scientists pushing the boundaries of human knowledge, venturing into the outer reaches of the universe, that is what they tend to do as well. It is about experimentation and improvisation at that point. They have to hypothesize to get further.
They have to abstract from this point in order to get to the the next place. That is also the role of abstraction in art. I think it is hard to dismiss abstraction; you can look at it and think “that shit is ugly” or “I don’t get it,” but you are not dismissing it. It sticks with you. That is what I am shooting for.
Is it about active vs. passive engagement?
Yes, and I was thinking a lot about that while making the album. It goes back to the reasons why I say these aren’t protest songs. We live in a culture of dismissal [mimics swiping on his phone over and over]. But if you really think about it, the things that get you to stop and pay attention are often the things that appear slightly off. You click and engage. So it’s about blurring the picture just a little bit to keep someone there and reel them in. I think maybe that is what myself and Kool A.D. were trying to do, musically.
Sometimes it is difficult to anticipate when tracks begin and end. Is that deliberate?
I thought about that a lot. I wanted each track to feel almost like a classical piece with different movements. I wanted each one to feel like a whole experience. But maybe not track 4, the shortest one, “Particle Spectra.” I thought of that as one movement. But even so, maybe it ended up as two. Mostly, the pieces have at least three different things going on, making them feel more like a classical pieces.
When you are composing, do you ever try to stay away from certain phrases and sequences that sound too conventional?
No. I write exactly what needs to be written. So if it needs to be clear, I make it clear. The final track of the album is maybe 6 minutes long and it is super strict. But towards the end, the motif gets abstracted and abstracted and abstracted before returning once again to what seems like an overly–clear statement. That is what the track called for so that is what we did. I never want to impose anything on the music.
I am also just trying to act as a scribe for this mystical thing: art and music. That’s the hardest part about composing – getting your beliefs out of the way. Sometimes the music wants me to write something really fucking corny. But rather than refraining, i’ll put it down there. When I first started writing the album I thought “man that is so repetitive.” Especially the motif that goes “dadadadadada” [taps rhythm on the table]. If it were up to me, in the beginning, I would never have left that rhythm in for so long. But it needed to be there. I heard it and therefore I put it down on paper.
“You have to get yourself out of the way in order to let the music live”
If it is not up to you, what is it up to?
It is up to the muse. Muse – music. I always say this shit: when we die it will still be here. It was here before we were. It is a living thing. That is all I know about it. It speaks to me and it comes to me. We all feel it; when it’s there it’s there. You feel the goosebumps. It bypassess all of our baggage. One of the main roles of an artist is to really tune in to that. You have to get yourself out of the way in order to let the music live.
That is why we practice. That is why we study it – to make sure that when it comes it is not limited by any technical failings or by any ego inside of us. We acquire information and ability in order to be able to let go. It is the same thing with sports. When you hear people saying “I was in the flow” or “I heard the first bell and then the match was over” – that is the same state.
How do the band react when you give them the sheet music?
I do know that when we first started rehearsals they felt overwhelmed. They were like “oh shit, Ok, you really took this seriously.” Even the programme directors said “Ok, people don’t usually write all this for just these two gigs.” Marcus Gilmore was laughing at me for being so serious with it. Based on some bad experiences, I now treat every commission like that. I go way over the top, one hundred times bigger than people think I should.
Ambrose Akinmusire, Origami Harvest (Blue Note)