Ambrose Akinmusire Workshop@ Sydney Con
As I spin Ambrose’s most recent Blue Note release fresh out of the plastic and the first notes drop [a duet with Pianist Sam Harris in fact] I thought it time to pen down some belated words on his band’s now not-so-recent trip down to Australia, as part of Sydney Festival 2014.
Each year Sydney Festival makes an effort to feature one international jazz heavyweight in their program, and have- since my burgeoning interest in all things improvised- have chosen well, with Medeski Martin & Wood in 2010, Tomasz Stanko Quintet in 2011, Joshua Redman & Brad Mehldau duet in 2012, and the Orchestre National De Jazz last year. This year Sydney-siders were lucky enough to get trumpeter of the moment play with his quintet fresh from cutting a new LP.
In addition to the two gigs Ambrose’s quintet played, the musicians of Sydney were blessed to have his entire band [!] do a workshop at the Sydney Con. Occasionally, due to contractual agreements with either the musician’s management or the festival/venue, workshops can’t be arranged for visiting international artists [eg. Maria Schneider in 2013 and John Zorn just last month] so it was made even more special that such a workshop was organized only weeks before their arrival- although as fate was to have it, I had just landed in Osaka, Japan [which you can read about HERE] the morning Ambrose and his clan were having their frontal lobes orally dissected; never one to give up brashly I made sure with the vivacity of every organisational organ in my body that the workshop was recorded.
Listening back, amazement aside, my initial thoughts from the workshop were how many of Ambrose’s answers I had heard or read before. By no means am I suggesting he recycles responses, in fact, I find Ambrose’s answers deeply insightful and candid; what I have found though is after attending a number of masterclasses/workshops, the greater portion of questions asked can be funnelled into to four or five key concepts and so analogous questions can illicit- naturally and at no fault of the questioned- a near identical response. This would only be exacerbated by the preemptive release of a new album and the media commitments it would bring, undoubtedly pushed on him by a major label such as Blue Note, on top of an already surging wave of popularity that has seen him rise to become one of the most in demand improvisers today. His responses to a more than modest share of interviews and exposés [at least for a jazz musician] can be found published online, in videos, not to mention Downbeat magazine where he was this month’s cover story, so if you have a question to ask him, chances are it has already been asked, and answered.
I mention all this because I believe Ambrose himself was conscious of the repetitious nature of the masterclass, and in an attempt to remain as insightful and candid as his first Q&A he took it into his own hands to slightly skewed the traditional format…
After playing a tune from his 2011 release ‘The Heart Emerges Glistening’, he introduced the band but before he opened the floor to traditional question-answer format, he proceeded to read a letter he wrote in 2013, on his 31st birthday, addressed to his 21-year-old self; a letter he said he originally recited at the Banff Workshop.
I found his letter easily the most poignant part of the band’s workshop. It really showed that beyond the music, Ambrose is a deep-thinking human being of u-adulterated sincerity- although I’m sure we all have already gauged that from his playing.
His letter reminded me of when I teach my trumpet students important concepts that I didn’t learn myself till late high school or university I make of point of introducing them as ‘something I wish I learnt when I was your age’. I nearly always see students become more attentive and eager to learn after pulling out that line. In my eyes, Ambrose was saying the same thing in this letter, only in a far more poetic manner.
I have decided dutifully I should share his words. Although the letter is fairly introspective, Ambrose is no stranger to showcasing his emotions, even if it usually him talking through his horn and not directly with spoken word. But fore-mostly, I believe he would genuinely want all music students to know these life lessons and be able to avoid the same pitfalls he encountered growing up as a student, a musician, but mostly importantly- an emerging artist.
Note: I will not be posting any audio from the workshop but have thoroughly summarised the letter below.
He began the letter by reassuring his younger self that he was holistically a happier and healthier Ambrose and was writing to himself to “give some advice and tell you what you’ve learnt over the last 10 or so years.” He then proceeded to list a number of points with a title and a short explanation. I’ve provided the title and quoted a good portion of the explanation. All content below is right out of the mouth of Ambrose, no paraphrasing involved.
1. ‘Don’t get caught up in what other should or should not be doing.’
‘Your ego disguised as good intentions.’
‘Everyone has their own path and right now your straying from yours.’
‘Just do you.’
2. ‘Run away from sit ins?*’
‘A lot of your peers are extremely dark about jazz and what it means and how it should be played and even who should be playing it…they are poison and ultimately they get nowhere.’
* Muffled sound, best guess of word.
3. ‘Learn everything because you’ll have no idea what tools you’ll need in the future.’
‘If you don’t like the information manipulate it till you do.’
‘You’ll never know what tools you’re going to need later or how knowledge of something seemingly small and peripheral will be essential to something you do later.’
4. ‘Don’t try to be normal.’
‘Normal is just a bunch of people pretending to be the same.’
‘In this period you will consistently yourself in both words and actions because they wont be consistent with you who are and what truly believe. Worst of all it will affect your playing for a while and you will sound like a cross between Roy Hargrove and Clifford Brown. Just do you.’
5. ‘Honesty and bluntness.’
‘Look people in the eye, especially when you are critiquing them, this is a great indication of the effect your having on them.’
Be responsible for the way you make people feel.’
[Note: I believe he was noting he maybe have been too honest and blunt]
6. ‘Creativity is not a talent, it’s a way of living.’
‘You don’t wait for it in a practice room.’
‘The most important thing you’ll learn from him [Wayne Shorter] is that he and all the people you consider creative are creative because they understand that creativity is a way of living, its not some tangible thing you wait for in a practice room.’
7. ‘Don’t pick them up, don’t lay them down.’
‘When someone says you’re the greatest, you’re an absolute you’re genius, you say thank you so much, thank you, bye bye. Because if you pick them up you see, you’ve got to believe them when they say you’re nothing.’
‘It means allow yourself to receive and show gratitude without letting feedback define who you are, or how you feel about yourself.’
8. ‘One day I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do that…’
‘You need to develop all the skills and ideas that come to you now, while they’re still fresh in your mind and your excited about them, excitement is the fuel ideas need to be in order to be realised. Don’t wait.’
9. ‘Thank your heroes and those that have helped you while you still can.
‘It takes courage to not only admit you’re wrong in the present time but even more courage to admit what you believed yesterday you don’t believe today.’
‘You didn’t miss anything by not drinking and smoking.’
‘You will never need it to create.’
11. ‘The list.’
‘The list you have on your wall of your concepts and what you want to sound like will be something that will guide you and inspire you for quite some time. Keep updating and returning to it. Every time you feel lost this will be the thing that will help you find your way back. Pay close attention to the parts that say never make music for money. If you take care of the music, music will take care of you.’
Thank you Ambrose for allowing us this incredible insight. It is well noted.
Photo courtesy of http://www.ambroseakinmusire.com/