When it comes to jazz, the oeuvres of John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Dexter Gordon guarantee that there’s more than enough albums by sax-led quartets to go around. And when it comes to sax- and trumpet-led quintets, well, once you know Miles Davis, you don’t need to know anything else. But what’s far less common, and for no good reason, are albums by trumpet-led quartets. Enter trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, who introduces his fantastic trumpet-led four piece with A Rift In Decorum: Live At The Village Vanguard (CD, digital).
Recorded February 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th, 2017, at the iconic and titular New York City jazz club, A Rift In Decorum: Live At The Village Vanguard finds Ambrose Akinmusire teaming with pianist Sam Harris, with whom he recorded 2014’s The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier To Paint; bassist Harish Raghaven, who also played on Imagined Savior as well as 2011’s When The Heart Emerges Glistening; and drummer Justin Brown, who was on both Imagined Savior and Heart Emerges, as well Ambrose Akinmusire’s debut as a leader, 2008’s Prelude…To Cora.
And it’s that familiarity that serves them well, as this two-CD set makes it sound as if Akinmusire, Harris, Raghaven, and Brown have been playing together long enough to have formed a single hive mind, one that’s perfectly in sync. From the playful “Maurice & Michael (sorry I didn’t say hello)” that opens the first disc to the manic and dramatic “Umteyo” that closes the second, A Rift In Decorum: Live At The Village Vanguard clearly marks the debut of a great four-piece.
What’s interesting, though not unexpected, is how this quartet recall the four-pieces of Coltrane, Rollins, and Gordon on A Rift In Decorum: Live At The Village Vanguard. But, obviously, with a trumpet instead of a sax. It never sounds like something’s missing; like the group has a sax player, but he’s off getting a soda or something.
If anything, A Rift In Decorum: Live At The Village Vanguard has me thinking that Ambrose Akinmusire may own as many of Coltrane’s albums as he does Miles’. Especially some of Coltrane’s latter works. On the beautiful “Moment in between the rest (to curve an ache),” his playing goes from mournful and moody to flirting with free jazz squanch. There’s also a buzzy drone that comes into play on “Brooklyn,” which might make some think there’s a bee in the room, while free jazz lovers will just find it interesting that someone’s playing free form trumpet.
Don’t worry, though. Ambrose Akinmusire’s A Rift In Decorum: Live At The Village Vanguard only drifts into free jazz momentarily. It never goes as far with it as Coltrane did on First Meditations, let alone during the hour-long version of “My Favorite Things” on Live In Japan. For instance, “Taymoor’s World,” which opens the second disc, frequently shifts from smoky to frantic, bordering on out of control and back again over the course of its ten-minute runtime. It’s a pattern somewhat mirrored by “Trumpet Sketch (milky pete),” which starts off as a moody solo trumpet piece, but quickly becomes playful, as if Ambrose Akinmusire had been in a bad mood, but then the other guys came into the room, shot him a smile, and they all started to freely improvise together.
In other words, if you hate all free jazz, you might find parts of Ambrose Akinmusire’s A Rift In Decorum: Live At The Village Vanguard to be occasionally noisy, but if you can take free form jazz in small doses, like a garnish, you’ll be okay.
Which reminds me: While Ambrose Akinmusire came to prominence outside jazz circles by playing on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, there’s nothing hip-hop-y on A Rift In Decorum: Live At The Village Vanguard. In case you were wondering.
In fact, instead of being free form or funky, A Rift In Decorum: Live At The Village Vanguard is actually kind of moody. Quite a few tracks — including “Condor,” “A song to exhale to (diver song),” “First Page (Shabnam’s poem),” and “Piano Sketch (beyond enclosure)” — have the same smoke-filled-room vibe as the aforementioned “Taymoor’s World,” but without the more amped up parts. Though, again, not everything is mellow, as illustrated by jumpy and loose “H.A.M.S. (in the spirit of honesty).”
Without question, A Rift In Decorum: Live At The Village Vanguard marks the debut of an expressive new quartet, and a bold step for Ambrose Akinmusire. But there are a couple structural issues worth mentioning. On the second disc, there are intros for the songs “Condor” and “Piano Sketch (beyond enclosure)” that are presented as separate songs, “Condor (Harish intro)” and “Piano Sketch (Sam intro).” And while it’s obvious what these songs are, I’m less clear on why they’re separate tracks. Though I suppose it doesn’t really matter if you don’t plan on listening to this album on shuffle, which I don’t.
What also won’t matter to most, but did bug me as a live album purist, is that A Rift In Decorum: Live At The Village Vanguard was recorded over multiple nights. Personally, I would’ve preferred had it been recorded in just one night. Or at least sounded like it was. Having the applause obviously fade out completely ruins the illusion of this being a single show. Especially since Ambrose Akinmusire ends the song “Moment in between the rest (to curve an ache)” by saying “Thank you so much for coming out. Have a good night,” followed by a complete fade out, even though this tune is the third track of seven on the first disc. But that’s just me being picky.
In the end, A Rift In Decorum: Live At The Village Vanguard is a fantastic album by a great jazz four piece, one with a configuration we don’t hear often enough. I just hope we get it hear it again, and by these four, sometime soon.