The second night of the Wellington Jazz Festival belonged firmly to Californian trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and his brilliant quartet. Herbie Hancock was always going to be a hard act to follow, but Akinmusire’s set, in the same venue the following night (the inexplicably not-full Michael Fowler Centre,) couldn’t have done a more fulfilling job of it - a beautiful, impressive and inspiring performance.
The New Zealand School of Music Big Band played a fun and energetic opening set of standards, band leader Dr. Rodger Fox speaking to the crowd about how important live opportunities of this kind are to young musicians. It didn’t take long after that for the lights to dim and the four headlining musicians to appear on the stage. Akinmusire and his trumpet were joined by pianist Sam Harris, upright bassist Harish Raghavan, and the 21 year-old drummer Kweku Sumbry. All are, of course, incredible musicians, with Sumbry’s bursts of percussive brilliance drawing a particularly enthusiastic response from the audience, who audibly gasped when Akinmusire mentioned his age.
The small acoustic group played a couple of hours of colourful and arresting spiritual-influenced jazz, the well-thought-out set swinging between full-throttle noisy rhythmic intensity and moments of beautiful starry mellowness, always with an ear for the combined textures of the instruments above all else. All four musicians brought their all to their solos and playing throughout, the drums especially wowing both with their talent and diverse timbral roles. However, Akinmusire’s trumpet always carried that air of authority as the bandleader, cutting right through. When not playing, he’d stand holding his instrument in his black suit, watching the other musicians and bobbing his head with a look of calm approval. He kept the words to a minimum between songs, stopping a few times to thank us all and introduce the players.
His playing itself was delightful and showed off the strength of his own compositions, which hit my personal sweet spot between semi-free improvisation and organised melody. The stomping pulse of Maurice & Michael (Sorry I Didn’t Say Hello) was an early highlight, with the trumpet slowly building from sparse, carefully-chosen phrases to faster flurries of notes. Elsewhere he added colour with an array of note-sliding techniques and shrill breathy tones. On the heavy set-closing blast of Umteyo, he kept up a repetitious stabbing note over and over for an unbelievably long time, as the bass and piano pulsed alongside him and the drums scrambled full-power all over the rhythm.
The gentler moments were equally captivating, such as Moment In Between The Rest (To Curve An Ache) with its brushed snare and contrasting experimental “ugly” trumpet noises, and the aptly-named A Song To Exhale To, which was opened by Raghavan’s gorgeous bowed bass.
After a standing ovation and resultant encore, the set was over, and I left the venue unable to stop smiling. It was one of those concerts where you feel you’ve been washed over by the music, one where you could only sit back and let it surround you. Ambrose Akinmusire and his quartet deliver a captivating experience, and are a must-see for any jazz fan - or actually for any music fan at all.