Ambrose Akinmusire

Ambrose Akinmusire’s musical gifts developed rapidly. He grew up in Oakland, California, and while in high school he caught the attention of saxophonist Steve Coleman. Akinmusire joined Coleman’s Five Elements at age nineteen, touring while also a student at Manhattan School of Music. He then pursued further study—earning a master’s degree at the University of Southern California, then attending the Thelonius Monk Institute in Los Angeles, where his mentors included Shorter and Herbie Hancock. 

Akinmusire won the Monk International Jazz Competition in 2007 and was signed to Blue Note Records; his debut for the label, When the Heart Emerges Glistening, drew worldwide accolades. The Los Angeles Times observed that “Akinmusire sounds less like a rising star than one that was already at great heights and just waiting to be discovered.”

During that period, Akinmusire’s playing was distinguished by a slashing, confrontational intensity. Brio became his brand. “Right from the start people were saying all these things about dissonance and complexity—that was a first impression that stuck. There was a lot I wanted to express and some of that was just this anxious thing … But there’s always been different approaches in my music. On my first album I also had tunes like ‘Henya’ [an original he revisits on Owl Song]. That was a kind of playing I always did … Also, I was just young.”

In the wake of the acclaim for his debut, Akinmusire wasted little time exploring other dimensions of his art. He composed music for strings and voice (The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint, 2014), appeared on Kendrick Lamar’s landmark To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), and conjured a tapestry called Origami Harvest (2018) that explored the complexities of Black life using long-form jamming, spoken word, hip-hop, and strings. His next project, On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment, furthered that narrative direction. Released two weeks after the murder of George Floyd, it contained poignant laments about income inequality and the effects of rapid gentrification on communities like those in the Bay Area where he grew up.

Owl Song is the first of three records Akinmusire is planning to release over the next year. Each will spotlight a distinct element of Akinmusire’s musical world and involve different instrumentation and production approaches. He confesses that he’s not one of those artists who breezes through his work; every record in his discography has challenged his thinking in some fundamental way. He focuses on the granular detail of the process, and only later, when he looks back, does he appreciate the entire journey of the project.

“I came away from [Owl Song] realizing that this was a full exploration of a part of myself, a part that I really hadn’t shared before. Possibly that’s the inverse of what most people do when they make a record—they want to show the range of what they do. I didn’t care about that. There was something wonderful about paring everything back to just this one space, with three people playing live, and us creating within its limits … It feels to me like a full exploration. And then the next album will also be a full exploration of a part of myself. That’s how it goes.”

Owl Song

With each note and every phrase, the instrumentalist has a choice: Will the sound be a prayer, or will it send the army into battle? Will it soothe, or startle, or do both at once?

Or, in Ambrose Akinmusire’s formulation, “Is the sound going to be a hug? Or a knife?”

This has become an animating question, possibly the animating question, for the revered trumpet player and composer, who makes his Nonesuch debut with the austere, hauntingly minimal Owl Song; a series of skeletal pieces that move like dances captured in hypnotic slow motion. These start out prairie-plain and declarative, sprouting unexpected dimension, as Akinmusire, guitarist Bill Frisell, and drummer Herlin Riley become enmeshed in conversation. It’s a fragile vibe that can only flourish when the participants are listening deeply and stepping gingerly, each alive to the dramatic possibilities of vastness, the silences between notes, the questions hanging, unanswered, in the air.

Origami Harvest

Origami Harvest is a surprisingly fluid study in contrasts enlisting New York’s Mivos Quartet along with drummer Marcus Gilmore, pianist Sam Harris, saxophonist Walter Smith III, and art-rapping. The compositions pit contemporary classical against deconstructed hip-hop, with bursts of left-field jazz, funk, spoken word, and soul. This suite of songs, as with each of this Oakland native’s works, holds within it exquisite beauty and superb artistry; each track a world unto itself lithely traversing moods and modes.

 Contact Info


Management | Mariah Wilkins Artist Management, Mariah Wilkins
Label | Nonesuch, Melissa Cusick

Discography | Ambrose Akinmusire on Allmusic.com