NPR First Listen: Ambrose Akinmusire, 'Origami Harvest'


Ambrose Akinmusire offers a litany of the dead as the penultimate track of Origami Harvest, his audacious, politically exigent, altogether astounding new album. The track is titled "Free, White and 21," and its lyrics consist of the names of African-American men and women (and, it must be said, boys) slain in recent years by members of law enforcement or the neighborhood watch.

If you've followed Akinmusire's career as a trumpeter and composer over the last decade, you're sure to recognize this poison leitmotif. He introduced it with "My Name is Oscar," a spoken-word poem inspired by the murder of Oscar Grant III; that appeared on Akinmusire's Blue Note debut in 2010, three years before #BlackLivesMatter coalesced as a movement. Then in 2014, he released an album track titled "Rollcall for Those Absent," again mincing no words.

"Free, White and 21" is the most musically fulfilling iteration in the series, owing to some insurgent yet elegant writing for string quartet. As Akinmusire whispers those names — a few, like Tamir Rice, are repeated for emphasis — his overdubbed voice also wails, distraught, like an unhinged and inconsolable Greek chorus.

The concerns expressed here are far from incidental to the heart of Origami Harvest. Originating in a commission from the Ecstatic Music Festival and St. Paul's Liquid Music Series, this is an album propelled by indignation, and guided by perseverance. At a glance it suggests a few parallels with Kendrick Lamar's 2015 opus To Pimp a Butterfly, on which Akinmusire briefly appears. But the album also feels in dialogue with the likes of Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You, Kara Walker's cutout antebellum silhouettes, and Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric.