Ambrose Akinmusire, Bill Frisell, & Herlin Riley, “Owl Song”
By Peter Margasak · January 10, 2024 Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)

Ambrose Akinmusire has never bowed to the rules of the record industry. Instead, the composer and trumpet player has shifted between diverse projects with a fluidity that matches his melodic invention. In 2023, he shared the results of some creative work he’d crafted in the shadows over the last couple of years. He also left his long-time home Blue Note for Nonesuch, which isn’t yoked by the “jazz” reputation of the former—but not before self-releasing a stunning solo trumpet album with no advance notice. Beauty is Enough felt like a rupture, albeit one marked by introspection and sublime lyric expression in narrative form, opening up fresh possibilities. We’re set to experience a few of them over the next year: Owl Song is the first of three new recordings to appear on Nonesuch between now and the end of 2024.

Owl Song features guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Herlin Riley—a veteran collaborator of Wynton Marsalis, with a sublime mastery of the New Orleans rhythms he was raised on—in both trio and duo formations. But despite the larger cast, it retains much of Beauty is Enough’s stripped-down aura, just reshaped by collective sensibility. The session feels conversational, often with a vague folk rock feel expanded with a remarkable sense of space and subtle motion. All through the brooding beauty of “Weighted Corners,” Riley plays his kit with his bare hands rather than sticks or brushes. The choice provides the perfect ballast to the plush, aerated tonal warmth and tuneful elasticity of the trumpeter, and the gentle acoustic arpeggios and almost imperceptible bluesy electric stabs of Frisell. Riley has also worked with pianist Ahmad Jamal, and he clearly absorbed some lessons from the pianist’s famous drummer Vernell Fournier in the way his cycling grooves say so much.

There are two radically different takes on the title track. The first basks in the sort of easygoing pastoral beauty and melodic clarity that we expect from Frisell; the second only hints at the theme, probing its harmonic underpinnings and ingeniously compressing the melody like a fragile dirge, as Riley shapes hypnotic tom melodies with mallets. “Mr Frisell” is one of the duo pieces, a multi-faceted performance between the guitarist and trumpeter that toggles between unison, serenity, and stinging harmony as they navigate a staircase-like line of slithers and slides, slickness and spikiness. The duo with Riley is the most extroverted track, as the drummer locks into a tough, shuffling second-line rhythm while Akinmusire plays cat-and-mouse with the melody, as he’s dodging and weaving the rhythmic eddies that suddenly shoot into the flow. The album concludes with a radically reimagined version of “Henya,” originally a slow-burn ballad with a Wayne Shorter feel from Akinmusire’s 2013 album When the Heart Emerges Glistening. It resurfaces here as an atmospheric abstraction that slowly gains gravity and the familiar melodic shape before patiently oozing into a heartbeat finger-snap pulse by the leader. Akinmusire somehow balances mystery and clarity, bringing a stunning precision and focus to the most elusive of sound worlds.

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