Photo by Christie Hemm Klok
Composer and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s fourth studio album Origami Harvest—which will be released October 12 on Blue Note—began with a challenge of sorts. It was a commission from curators Judd Greenstein of Manhattan’s Ecstatic Music Festival and Kate Nordstrum of St. Paul’s Liquid Music Series that began with Greenstein asking, “What’s the craziest idea you have?” Considering “challenge” and “crazy” are the order of the day, Akinmusire’s reply was right on time: “I wanted to do a project about extremes and putting things that are seemingly opposite right next to each other.” The result is a surprisingly fluid study in contrasts that—with help from New York’s Mivos Quartet and art-rap expatriate Kool A.D. along with drummer Marcus Gilmore, pianist Sam Harris, and others—pits contemporary classical wilding against deconstructed hip-hop, with bursts of left-field jazz, funk, spoken word, and soul.
That the album’s spirit evokes this era is no accident. These songs actively respond to societal divides, the way our politics hold us emotionally hostage, and the ever-growing list of black lives ended by structural racism. As with each of this Oakland native’s works there’s exquisite beauty and superb artistry here, each track a world unto itself lithely traversing moods and modes. But there’s heft too, even in the title. “Origami,” says Akinmusire, “refers to the different ways black people, especially men, have to fold, whether in failure or to fit a mold. Then I had a son while writing this and I thought about these cycles repeating: Harvest.”
The tug-of-war between hope and dread is evident in the opening track “a blooming bloodfruit in a hoodie,” which is named in recognition of Trayvon Martin’s terrible death yet contains the album’s brightest tones and easiest grooves. Gilmore takes us from gentle rolls to head-nod beats, as Harris plays tranquil piano and shimmering keys. Akinmusire blows sunshine while Kool A.D. rhymes from the pocket: “We are the universe learning to love itself, swirling in color and light.” Chaos lurks though—midway through, the rhythm section vacates, leaving the MC spitting out-of-place rap tropes (“Real hip-hop!”) over a melancholic Mivos. A brief return to a Soulquarian-style jam belies what’s coming.
Rolling Stone caught the trumpeter’s performance of the new work last month at the Newport Jazz Festival and raved “Akinmusire framed the incisive monologues of rapper Kool A.D. with spacey beats and elegant strings courtesy of contemporary-classical group Mivos Quartet, resulting in an ingenious, brain-bending hybrid.”
“I was thinking a lot about the masculine and the feminine. High and low art. Free improvisation versus controlled calculation. American ghettos and American affluence,” says Akinmusire. “Originally, I thought I put them all so close together that it would highlight the fact that there isn’t as much space between these supposed extremes as we thought, but I don’t know if that’s actually the conclusion of it.” The answer, of course, is being written all around us.
The track listing for Origami Harvest is as follows:
1. a blooming bloodfruit in a hoodie
2. miracle and streetfight
3. Americana / the garden waits for you to match her wilderness
4. particle / spectra
5. Free, White and 21
6. the lingering velocity of the deads’ ambitions