Berkeley High alumnus Ambrose Akinmusire is widely considered to be the best emerging jazz trumpeter in the world. If you tell him so, he’ll demur. A North Oakland native with old-school manners, Akinmusire masks his intensity, to a certain degree, with an easy laugh and soft-spoken demeanor. At twenty-six, he’s bicoastal with three mailing addresses (one in New York, one in Los Angeles, and one in Oakland), but says that’s all just an accident. He’s not the guy with the fedora and the apartment on Park Avenue. He’ll turn down a high-paying gig if it doesn’t pique his interest on a creative level. He makes a point of being “not really extra jazzy with it.”
But when you catch Akinmusire onstage, you get the real deal. As an artist he’s quick, meticulous, and extremely self-critical. He has such a refined ear that he can tell whether moving a few inches toward or away from a microphone will make him a hair flat or sharp. Last October he won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition (Joshua Redman won in 1991), then creamed everyone at the Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition a week later. Akinmusire says he learned about self-discipline and mastery from watching Mike Tyson fight clips and reading the Tao Te Ching. He’ll stay up until 4 a.m. at a jam session, and then wake up bright-eyed three hours later. He’s a monster of a musician who never seems to meet his own standards.
Akinmusire attributes most of his success to a strict, no-nonsense upbringing in a rough North Oakland neighborhood. His grandmother was a staunch Baptist who made sure the family attended church every Sunday. His dad was a Nigerian immigrant, and his mother — who raised Akinmusire by herself — worked for the Oakland Police Department. She kept his schedule booked so he wouldn’t have any time to get into trouble. He started piano lessons at age four, took up drums in fifth grade, and switched over to trumpet because his mother got tired of him banging on the wall. (She wanted Ambrose to play saxophone, but he said it had too many buttons). In high school he was set up to be an overachiever: Eagle Scout; black belt in tae kwon do; Berkeley High jazz band; rigorous practicing schedule. “I didn’t have a free day during the week,” the trumpeter recalled. “Like, Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, tae kwon do, Wednesday nights Boy Scouts, Sundays definitely church. Saturdays probably homework.”
All the work paid off. After high school Akinmusire got a full scholarship to attend the Manhattan School of Music, and went on to a Masters program at the Monk Institute of Jazz while studying concurrently at University of Southern California. Then came the Monk competition, which catapulted Akinmusire — however grudgingly — to instant international fame. “I’m not the type of person that stops,” he said. “I’m always like, ‘next, next,’ because the next week was the other competition.” He wasn’t counting on all the publicists and potential handlers who would be blowing up his phone shortly thereafter. “You know what, after this competition, man, people were calling me up and I got so involved in the business aspect of everything. Like at least two or three months of my life and I was just so wrapped up in it,” the trumpeter said. “And then one day I went to do a gig and I was trying to play, and the shit wasn’t coming out. I was like, ‘Fuck man, this is wack.’ You know? I was, like, ‘Man, what have I been doing with my time?'”
So Akinmusire got back in the shed, and never quite emerged. He recorded this year’s Prelude…to Cora — his debut as a bandleader — on the Spanish independent label Fresh Sound, despite protestations from A&R reps who thought he should sign with a major. He’s currently leading three groups: his eponymous sextet; the B3 trio (with fellow Berkeley High grad Michael Aalberg on Hammond organ); and a quartet called Stretch, which plays spur-of-the-moment sets, often with no count-off at the beginning. (At a recent gig, the members played free for three minutes, then spliced two standards together.) Never a stickler for tradition, the trumpeter has a real protean sense of what jazz can be. Björk, Imogean Heap, and Aretha Franklin sit alongside an album of unaccompanied Bach cello suites in his home CD collection. At a recent De Young Museum gig, he went from Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” to a really hip version of Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It.”
The meticulous recording process that birthed Prelude says a lot about Akinmusire’s character, and his approach. He recorded the album in one day, but nearly killed himself doing multiple takes (all that circular breathing can cause a lot of pain for a horn player, he said). It’s a carefully-crafted album with mixed tonalities, challenging melodies, and a melancholy, dream-like feel. In the liner notes, Akinmusire writes that the opening number came to him in a dream, and another — the dedication to his grandmother, Ruby — got into his head while he was sitting at a bus stop. On some songs, Akinmusire uses difficult intonations like the half-valve technique, which makes his horn sound like a moan or a whine — “sorta like mumbling in speech,” he said. It’s a difficult thing to do, and most musicians only half-valve one note at a time. Akinmusire can shape whole phrases that way. Probably the sexiest tune on Prelude is “M.I.S.T.A.G. (My Inappropriate Soundtrack to a Genocide),” a song inspired by the movie Hotel Rwanda. It begins with a doleful line from vocalist Junko Watanabe, who sings in tandem with the three-man horn section.
Akinmusire currently resides in Manhattan but comes back to Oakland periodically, and will be this fall’s Artist-in-Residence at the Jazzschool in Berkeley. He describes himself as kind of a misanthrope: On a typical day he gets up, walks to Max’s Café on 122nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue, picks up a mozzarella and cheese sandwich, and a copy of the Village Voice. He still goes to jam sessions at Cleopatra’s Needle, but generally prefers practicing on his own. And he’s still inspired by pro-sports players — most notably Tyson and Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, who quelled one of his haters in a recent game just by “shooting half courts and dunkin’ on cats.” That mix of competitiveness and determination is what glues the trumpet player together, and animates most of his music. “My fascination is with people who have worked extremely hard to be where they are,” Akinmusire recently said. “And they’re there, but they’re still working.”