Two years ago, Ambrose Akinmusire was New York's next jazz hero. With a major-label contract under his belt, he was turning heads with his fiery, angular trumpet improvisations, appearing on tracks with Esperanza Spalding and headlining shows at Carnegie Hall.
Then, just as his buzz was reaching fever pitch, the 32-year-old trumpeter packed up and moved to L.A.
For Akinmusire, heading to California was just one more left turn in a career full of them. While jazz purists preach a doctrine of walking basslines and finger-snapping swing, Akinmusire has done whatever he feels, whether it's including opera singers and breakbeats on his first album or abandoning the Big Apple.
"I'm just being Ambrose, and I'm trying to be creative every second of the day," he says.
And besides, he's always been a West Coaster at heart. A native of Oakland, Akinmusire was a wunderkind who went on his first tour at age 19. His third album, The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint, is his biggest sonic undertaking yet, a record that arguably owes more to Radiohead and Debussy than it does to classic swing.
In addition to his core quintet, Akinmusire recruited a string quartet, woodwinds and guitar for the project. He also brought in three vocalists: avant-folk chanteuse Becca Stevens, gritty balladeer Cold Specks and singer-composer Theo Bleckmann. While he reveres trumpet greats like Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard, Akinmusire says he models the sound of his instrument after the female voice, and cites Joni Mitchell as his all-time favorite artist. In fact, Bleckmann's feature, the ethereal ballad "Asiam (Joan)," is a tribute to Mitchell.
"It's like she's ripped her insides out and she's just pouring it all over the place," he says of the legendary songwriter. "If you really listen to the lyrics, you're just like, 'Is she just reading her diary?'"
For all his musical boldness, though, Akinmusire is less willing to lay himself bare. The new album's compositions—even the instrumentals—began as stories and were converted into sound by matching melodies and chords to the moods of particular paragraphs. Though often fictional, his plots are sometimes based on real people: The hypnotically repetitive "Bubbles," for instance, pays tribute to vaudeville tap dancer John W. Bubbles. But Akinmusire never enters the stories he writes.
"You know that whole thing: 'Every writer is just writing about themselves,'" he says. "But I don't feel like I am."
Regardless, Akinmusire puts his heart into every tale. The Imagined Savior's most gripping moment is "Rollcall for Those Absent," a nearly four-minute track in which a young girl reads the names of black shooting victims—including Trayvon Martin and Fruitvale Station subject Oscar Grant—over a floaty keyboard solo and simmering, freeform drums. "Rollcall" has been deemed "distracting" and "heavy-handed" by some critics. But, as always, Akinmusire doesn't really care what the jazz establishment thinks.
"I've learned to accept the consequences of believing in invention and creativity," Akinmusire says. "You're gonna be misunderstood. But my horse blinders have gotten a lot longer and a lot thicker over the years."
SEE IT: Ambrose Akinmusire plays Jimmy Mak's, 221 NW 10th Ave., with Christopher Brown, on Wednesday, June 25. 7:30 pm. $15-$20. Under 21 permitted until 9:30 pm.