Ambrose Akinmusire

Live Review | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | Review by Liam Wilkinson

Uttering the words “I don’t like jazz” is a little like saying “I don’t like fruit”; the diverse selection is just too big to lend any weight to the dismissal. Even if you’re not into bananas, you might enjoy a tasty peach. If a ripe kiwi isn’t up your street, try a juicy kumquat. To those who screw up their faces upon hearing a jazz record and offer the words “it just isn’t for me”, I’m almost certain that somewhere in the vast back catalogue of the genre there’ll be something wonderful waiting to be discovered, something that is very much for you. If the spiritual improvisations of John Coltrane don’t float your proverbial boat, then the emotive lines of Don Byas might get it sailing. Not a fan of Billie Holiday? Give Esperanza Spalding a spin.

Ambrose Akinmusire won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. The trumpeter’s studious, soul-churning abstracts and feverish improvisations stretch the boundaries of jazz almost to breaking point, especially when joined by the three musicians that make up his exuberant quartet. Even if this isn’t your kind of blue, you can’t help but be inspired and enchanted by the spectacle. The Howard Assembly Room in Leeds played host to a performance by these four giants of contemporary jazz this evening whilst an awestruck audience tested the elasticity of its many lungs. After the blustery ascension of the opening number the crowd were left breathless, unsure whether to applaud or offer a moment’s silence in response to Justin Brown’s thunderous percussion, Sam Harris’s dizzyingly momentous piano, Harish Raghava’s dignified yet brooding bass and Ambrose’s inquisitive trumpet.

Performing selections from Akinmusire’s back catalogue – the four albums Ambrose has released since the young Californian musician burst onto the scene back in 2007 – the quartet moved gracefully and without any unnecessary chat between complex tempests, sweetly melancholic meditations and mind-blowing solos. Having offered the reverential audience a number of exquisite piano and bass improvisations, not to mention dazzling solos from Ambrose who, though finding sprawling warmth amongst lower notes, seems most content to teeter on those in the higher registers, teasing new sounds out of the instrument as he pushes it to its very limits, three quarters of the band edged into the shadows to allow drummer Justin Brown his moment of thrilling glory. His bone-breaking solo – a raging exposition that was as carefully calculated as it was wildly ambitious – whipped those fortunate to witness it into a delightful frenzy. Even this reviewer – a jazzer who has lived on a diet of some of the most inventive, challenging and emotive stuff the genre has to offer for most of his life – headed back to Leeds Station after the show with a swirling head and a renewed passion for this always surprising and ever-evolving music.

A nod of appreciation also goes to northern jazz outfit the Firebird Quartet who provided a thoroughly enjoyable support performance at tonight’s concert. The tight foursome impressed with a set of originals, mostly the work of their superb pianist Martin Longhawn, featuring handsome trumpet lines from Ian Chalk, the dependable electric bass of John Marley and taut beats from drummer Tim Carter.