Things Ambrose Akinmusire likes: long introductions, odd rhythms and structures, florid titles. That’s certainly the initial takeaway from Akinmusire’s second album When the Heart Emerges Glistening, which Blue Note is touting as the young trumpeter’s visionary breakthrough. Yes, it can be bombastic (see the album name); still, behind the separately tracked intros, mixed 4/4-to-2/4 meters, and titles like “Tear Stained Suicide Manifesto,” lies some terrific, adventurous jazz.
There’s no impeaching Akinmusire’s tone: It’s clear, open, and deceptively languid, with just enough of a pinched cry to pierce listeners’ defenses. It’s one of his best compositional tools, endowing the complicated frameworks of “With Love” and “Jaya” with taut, memorable themes. The gimmick is particularly sharp on the latter, where the sudden turns in Gerald Clayton’s medium-tempo piano intro signal an oncoming musical maze; instead, Akinmusire and tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III supply a warm, smooth-as-syrup melody.
That tone is just as present in his improvisations. Even the dissonant weirdness of “The Walls of Lechuguilla” and the freeform jam “Far but Few Between” comprise simple, hummable phrases from the trumpeter. Smith is a sympathetic partner, and even more melodic on the dramatic opener “Confessions to My Unborn Daughter” and the ballad “Henya”; their chemistry, as much as their lyricism, defines the album.
The alchemy of the rhythm players can’t be overlooked, either. Akinmusire gives them much to navigate in pieces like “Lechuguilla,” which has five sections of varying lengths and tempos. In the more straightforward grooves, Clayton (as percussive a pianist as is working today), bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Justin Brown flirt with abstraction. “Confessions” is a slow waltz, until Smith starts soloing. Gradually, Raghavan’s fingerings start to dance around the beat, leading Clayton’s chordings into skewed jags and Brown into a complete, frenetic breakdown before Akinmusire returns them to the head—then starts the structural collapse over again with his own solo. The only rhythmic safe zones are the ones in which Raghavan and Brown lay out: the standard “What’s New” (the album’s only real swinger) and the quiet “Ayneh.”
When the Heart Emerges Glistening is an ambitious record by an acclaimed young musician, which means its pretenses were probably inevitable. “My Name Is Oscar,” a meditation on a real-life shooting by police in Oakland, is sincere but silly, with Akinmusire reciting short words and phrases against slappy drum accompaniment. It’s like a parody of beatnik poets. But such missteps can be forgiven: Heart portrays a stunningly accomplished and imaginative trumpeter and composer who has the makings of a long and fruitful artistic career.