Qwest TV Interview: "It is hard to dismiss abstraction"
by Florent Servia, Rowan Standish-Hayes
With his new album, Origami Harvest, Ambrose Akinmusire once again demonstrates the sheer creative freedom that runs through his compositions. We knew that a veritable musical essay like this would lead to a great interview. Here is the Blue Note-signed American trumpeter discussing Origami Harvest in his own words.
Our ears first attuned to the sound of Ambrose Akinmusire ten years ago and we have remained attentive ever since. The writing on Origami Harvest is truly singular, unconcerned by the need to meet commercial requirements. Its titles oscillate between free-flow ten minute pieces and standard-format 3 minute songs, though even these defy convention. Elsewhere, the sound unfurls with abrupt changes in atmosphere, like the movements in a classical suite. His albums become immersive experiences; establishing complete worlds he has imagined based on the themes they contain. Full of anxiety and agitation, this latest inspiring creation confirms what many of us already knew, that Ambrose Akinmusire is one of the most remarkable musicians of his generation.
How do you feel the experience of making this album has been different to your previous work?
Maybe this time it was a little bit different because it was commission-based. I devised my own instrumentation but I was forced to think about where it would be performed. But this project came together in a very beautiful, organic way. Kool A.D. is actually a friend of mine. Originally I was going to use Moses Sumney, and then I thought about using Georgia Anne Muldrow. But whilst I was trying to figure out who should be part of it, Kool A.D. came to my house and I was sitting there and I looked at him and I was like, “Oh, yeah! Do you wanna do this project with me?” He was like “yeah, i’m down.”
What came first, the atmosphere, the different subjects or the actual music? Where was the primary source of inspiration?
Its really funny: if you put a back beat to something it changes everybody’s perception of it. But this stuff isn’t different to anything i’ve been doing, in my mind. I’ve kind of been talking about the same issues for a while because they reflect my life. But I thought a lot about extremes at the start. I wanted it to feel extremely tense and uncomfortable and to push that feeling as far as I could, right into those extreme regions and into the opposite of that, too.
Serenity… but with movement. Something about “serene” doesn’t encompass movement. So, the opposite of extreme, whatever that is. I wanted to push the two states together. But I didn’t want it to feel like it was seesawing between them. It needed to be a particular way and then, all of a sudden, to change states. That is the reason I don’t have a bass on it. I always feel like the bass acts as a kind of inbetween – between the drums and the keyboard or whatever else. That presented another challenge: how would I make this funky without a bass … is that even possible? The absence of a bass represents the absence of a middle, which was also something I began thinking about.
Do you see a reflection of society in that idea?
Not so much in society. But if we want to talk about it politically … this is the first album i’m making since going back to where I grew up. And that has been a real head-trip because I am still confronted with some of the political issues that surround Oakland. But at the same time, gentrification is happening. And the trippy thing is that i’m actually part of the gentrification. You know, I bought a house, i’m somewhat successful … i’ve been going through all these head-trips and that can be a political thing as well.
But for every album I put out, people want to talk about politics. Yeah, sure, im making political statements but in reality this is just my life. Is a Palestinian throwing a rock over a the wall a political statement? Yes … but it is also just their life. They are not thinking “let me make a political statement.” It is what it is. And I wish I didn’t have to engage with political issues. I wish I could write about a beautiful bird flying in the fucking sky and not have a care in the world. But I live in Oakland. And inevitably, it has influenced the album.
In “Free, White, 21” there is a list of names and in between them you say “this is not a protest song.” What do you mean by that?
When I say “this is not a protest song” i’m saying that it’s not that simple. I’m also telling you not to dismiss it. It is not just a protest song. This is not just a case of pressing play and then stop. These are people’s lives. This is my life. And also, i’m tired of musicians using other people’s struggles to further their careers. Everybody has a Black Lives Matter song and they aren’t out protesting on the streets. That is another reason why I said it. I’ve been doing this shit since my first Blue Note album, before Black Lives Matter and all that stuff. This is me using a platform to educate people, to have these conversations.
One of the most beautiful moments i’ve experienced with it was when I was playing in Kiev and somebody asked me who Oscar Grant was. I thought that was so fucking beautiful. It gave me the opportunity to talk to a full audience about Oscar Grant – in Kiev! One thing I never normally say in interviews is that sometimes I imagine my name being read out loud with that list of names. I imagine someone else reading it and unfortunately, it is an easily conceivable image. The train I ride a few times a week goes right past the place where Oscar Grant was killed. So it plays a very active role in my life.
Do you feel progression in society?
Maybe in the younger generation. In today’s teenagers. They seem to get it and they seem to be erasing the lines of division in a way I find really compelling. They are doing it in race and gender, in society and in class-based issues, too. It gives me hope.
How do you feel about popular movies like Black Panther, Blackkklansman and shows like Atlanta that are immensely successful while being predicated on race issues? Are you happy with our discussion of these ideas in the mainstream?
To me, it is like turning up the dial on a radio. When you raise the volume, you raise the treble and you raise the bass as well. So, if there is more mainstream dialogue coming from the black community, maybe that is because there has been a heightened White Supremacist thing going on too, since Trump. If one thing rises, the rest does as well. So maybe nothing’s really changed but everything has gotten louder. And maybe that is what needs to happen before things switch for the better.
But I feel more racism now than I did before. Globally, racist people have been galvanised with their recent, whatever, “wins” around the world. If you look at Venezuela, if you look at Brazil, all over Europe … Russia, the Ukraine, all over the world, everything is kind of shitty. If you were to rewind the clock 6, 8, definitely 10 years, I think things would feel better than they do now. I’m aware it is a fucked up thing to say [laughs]! We can focus on the Blackkklansmans and the Black Panthers, but those things are a product of everything getting louder. By raising the volume, you aren’t changing the equalizer. To change the equalizer, you have to reach for the equalizer. Let me turn down the treble, we need some more bass in here [laughs]!