Though he had recorded with them before (albeit always with other people), 2017’s A Rift In Decorum: Live At The Village Vanguard marked the true debut of Ambrose Akinmusire’s impressive jazz quartet, the most interesting new jazz combo since Matthew Shipp teamed up with Matt Walerian two years prior for Live At Okuden. Now the foursome have made their first studio album together, on the tender spot of every calloused moment (CD, digital, vinyl). And while most of it is equally as impressive as A Rift In Decorum, it does have some ill-fitting moments when three of the members go M.I.A. and their leader puts down his signature instrument.
Recorded in Brooklyn,
on the tender spot of every calloused moment features ten new tunes by Ambrose Akinmusire — and one co-written by Genevieve Artadi, which we’ll get to momentarily — none of which previously appeared on A Rift In Decorum. And like on that live album, this studio session has the trumpet master teaming up with pianist and synthesizer player Sam Harris (who previous backed Akinmusire on 2014’s The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier To Paint and 2018’s Origami Harvest); upright bassist Harish Raghavan (who was also on Savior as well as 2011’s When The Heart Emerges Glistening); and drummer Justin Brown (who was on Heart, Savior, and 2008’s Prelude…To Cora).
On seven of on the tender spot of every calloused moment‘s eleven songs, the album just features the foursome. But there’s also an eighth track, “Tide of Hyacinth,” on which they’re joined by singer / percussionist Jesus Diaz; a ninth, a solo trumpet piece called “4623”; a tenth, “Hooded procession (read the names outloud),” on which Ambrose Akinmusire swaps his trumpet for a Rhodes electric piano for another solo song; and an eleventh, the aforementioned “Cynical sideliners,” on which Akinmusire plays Rhodes while Artadi sings.
Now, when on the tender spot of every calloused moment is just the foursome, this album hits the same heights as A Rift In Decorum. And in similar ways. Ambrose Akinmusire is a fantastic trumpet player who’s equally matched and supported — and they in turn — by Justin Brown’s drumming, Harish Raghavan’s bass playing, and Sam Harris’ keyboards.
Take the album’s opener, “Tide Of Hyacinth,” which flirts with the same kind of free jazz adjacent approach these four displayed frequently on A Rift In Decorum. On the first and third of this song’s three distinct parts, Akinmusire’s trumpeting and Sam Harris’ piano playing gets both playful and conflicted, while Raghavan and Brown form a rock solid rhythmic foundation on which the other two can play.
For the middle piece of three, though, the quartet are joined by Diaz, who sings in Yorba, the language of Benin and southwest Nigeria. But while Diaz’s vocal contributions did initially feel out of place, they made more sense after repeated listens, and ultimately because more akin to the vocal parts of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” than, say, the incongruous vocal track “Nothing Like You” on Miles Davis’ Sorcerer.
Photo Credit: Ogata
Ambrose and crew…
next veer into smoky jazz territory with the mellow “Yessss,” which is not nearly the left turn it might seem on paper. No, for that you have to go on to the third track, “Cynical sideliners.” While Artadi has a nice voice, and this is a good and mushy soft rock ballad (well, if you like that sort of thing, which I don’t), in context, it sticks out rather awkwardly. And that does double when you get to the next tune, “Mr. Roscoe (consider the simultaneous),” on which the full foursome go back and forth from being playful to being more traditional in their playing and improvisation.
on the tender spot of every calloused moment continues down a similar path for its next three tunes. After opening with a beautiful bit of solo bass by Harish Raghavan, “An interlude (that get’ more intense)” builds into something dramatic and epic. Then, “reset (quiet victories&celebrated defeat)” comes in with an even more haunting bit of smoky, trumpet-led jazz, with “Moon (the return amplifies the unity)” then going back to the slightly scattered approach, one that is again held together by the locked-in tight rhythms of bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Justin Brown.
Ambrose Akinmusire then takes on the tender spot of every calloused moment for another left turn, albeit a less harsh one, with “4623,” a short but sweet solo trumpet piece that sounds like it was recorded in an empty room, not a professional studio. It’s also, at just 32 seconds long, more of an interlude than a full song, though it’s also not like the solo intros “Piano Sketch (Sam intro)” and “Condor Sketch (Harish intro)” on A Rift In Decorum.
Things then go back to the mellow place (but not the smoky one) for “Roy,” a short lament on which Ambrose Akinmusire and Sam Harris both play with the kind of care that only comes when you’re remembering someone you’ve lost (in this case, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, who died in 2018).
“Roy” is followed on on the tender spot of every calloused moment by “Blues (we measure the heart with a fist),” yet another high mark for this album in how it comes close to being free jazz adjacent, but in a noisy and atmospheric way that eventually builds into something more dramatic.
on the tender spot of every calloused moment then concludes with “Hooded procession (read the names outloud),” on which Ambrose Akinmusire once again plays the Rhodes, but this time alone. Though as with “Cynical sideliners,” the sound of the Rhodes, and the way Akinmusire plays it, keep this track from fitting in with the rest of the album.
on the tender spot of every calloused moment does, for the most part, match the beauty and ferocity Ambrose Akinmusire, Justin Brown, Sam Harris, and Harish Raghavan first showed on A Rift In Decorum. And that goes double if you cut the two ill-fitting tunes. Without them, on the tender spot of every calloused moment is an impressive collection from one of the best jazz bands working today. And hopefully not the last time they’ll work together as just a foursome.