Ambrose Akinmusire: Owl Song review – quietly joyous jazz grooves

The news that Ambrose Akinmusire likes owls comes as no surprise once you start pondering the watchful patience and swooping accuracy of this California-raised trumpet virtuoso’s jazz creativity for the past 15 years. Showered with plaudits in that time (with comparisons with Miles Davis often among them), Akinmusire shares Miles’ belief that less is more. He called this beautiful trio album Owl Song because his favourite birds’ cool occupancy of their world mirrors this project’s search for space and precious time in a clamorous human habitat he considers “assaulted by information”.

Akinmusire could have just played Owl Song as an ambient reverie in duo with his legendarily harmonious guitar partner Bill Frisell – but it’s the mix of that vibe and the quietly swinging jazz grooves of sometime Wynton Marsalis drummer Herlin Riley that casts Owl Song’s particular spell. Version one of the title track opens to the whispering breeze of Riley’s brushes pulsing above soft bass drum thuds, before a slow trumpet theme of warm low sounds and long-tone falsetto resolutions is caressed by Frisell’s echoing guitar chords.

In the cannily timed swapping of paired figures with single tones on Weighted Corners or the unison ascents and descents of trumpet and guitar on Grace, this music is close to minimalism, but its palette embraces much more. Frisell mingles seamlessly circling trumpet figures, pitch-bending swirls and phrases like softly stuttering fanfares, Riley sets a New Orleans street march tattoo under wriggling postbop improv, and Owl Song 2’s opening procession of sedate single tones and padding tom-tom sounds becomes a ballad-like narrative, discovering its rapturous melody and harmony piece by sparingly-revealed piece. As befits the title, Owl Song doesn’t raise its voice much, but what it quietly says is joyously vivid, even spine-tingling.

Also out this month

West Coast pianist/composer Myra Melford rekindles 2022’s For the Love of Fire and Water lineup for Hear the Light Singing (RogueArt) – deeper improv liaisons between saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, cellist Tomeka Reid, guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Lesley Mok, and the invitations of her own spikily beautiful, gracefully shapely themes. Legendary UK bandleader Mike Westbrook’s 1972 Solid Gold Cadillac quintet, with the Ayleresque sometime-People Show actor/saxophonist George Khan, reappears 50 years after being the innovative Cadillac label’s debut (Live 1972), still as a gripping collusion of raucously sax-led free jazz, Cream/Stones-era guitar R&B and dreamily atmospheric themes, notably on an ethereal account of Westbrook’s famous Metropolis. And Swiss-born pianist Sylvie Courvoisier creates captivatingly picturesque avant-jazz scenarios inspired by French visual artist Odilon Redon on Chimaera (Intakt) with New York shapeshifters Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet) Drew Gress (bass) and Kenny Wollesen (drums).