Ambrose Akinmusire’s trumpet has a voice, and that voice has stories to tell and feelings to share. Akinmusire’s 6th album, on the tender spot of every calloused moment, is many things: critically acclaimed, the 2020 Grammy award winner for Best Instrumental Jazz Album, and a showcase of profound technical skill and experience. But beyond accolades, the record is a collection of gentle whispers, heated shouts, pleas, promises, disappointments and triumphs.
As the name implies, this album shines in its heterogeneity — a variety of instruments, timbres, techniques, and compositional effects creates a 50-minute anthology of ambiguous, personal moments. Every song has its own story to tell and feelings to share, and more impressively, goes about doing so in a different way.
A somber yet simple horn solo starts the opening “Tides of Hyacinth,” and when the listener settles into their seat, chaos erupts as the rest of the ensemble crashes in. Drums, strings, piano, and bongos each add their own driving, cyclical voice to create a lush, noisy texture. It’s a constant feeling of unrest like one might feel listening to the storm beating against their window, fearing the moment it shatters. From this very first track, Akinmusire displays his ability to develop emotional and compositional ideas. Several times, the music will fade away and lines will seem to wrap up, just for everything to come crashing back in with a new instrument or a vocal line, more bombastic than before.
After the storm, “Yessss” is a windless downpour — omnipresent, soothing, and level. As with many tracks throughout the album, Akinmusire parallels the main melody with another instrument, sometimes piano and sometimes strings.
Although the recording was categorized as an instrumental work, singing is used to great effect in “Cynical sideliners.” A wispy childlike voice, paralleled by ringing chimes, warns the listener that “you are you and they are they, you’ll be brave and they’ll be safe.”
While most songs challenge the listener to find the tender spot in the calloused moment, “Roy” (an homage to Roy Hargrove) is quite the opposite. In a more traditional tune, piano, drums, bass, and lead horn send forth a golden light — a vignette of lying on the grass with someone special in the setting summer sun. This air of peace and serenity is interrupted by a dissonant piano solo, like a cloud casting a small shadow of worry and doubt.
If everything so far has been emotional and sentimental, “Blues (We measure the heart with a fist)” is physical and anatomical. A percussive sound like the cracking of bones partners the plucking of piano strings, like neurons firing signals in the brain. These signals expand the lungs from which Akinmusire blows a long, laboured wheeze through his horn.
on the tender spot of every calloused moment can be many things to many people. To some, it might be brooding and dense. To others, empowering and rambunctious. To all, it’s a unique, memorable experience that is not to be missed.