Ambrose Akinmusire and Dhafer Youssef

Review by Jon Turney

EFG London Jazz Festival
Barbican, London
19-11-2016

A classy double bill, this, with Ambrose Akinmusire’s regular quartet up first and getting straight down to business after the briefest of band intros. There were no further announcements, just beautifully accomplished music, starting with a duo between the leader and pianist Sam Harris that immediately established Akinmusire’s close control of one of the most beautiful trumpet sounds in jazz.

Ambrose Akinmusire (Photo © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk)

Ambrose Akinmusire (Photo © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk)

It’s a long-established band, and they are at ease with complex, often slightly oblique compositions. Everyone contributes to the overall sound, but the trumpet nearly always stands out. Akinmusire can be strident and soft, spiky as well as tender, and often traverses moods in the same piece. His characteristic slow wrung-out note-bending could turn into a mannerism but is usually deployed just enough to convey his signature move of emotion breaking through surface calm.

After his absorbing and rewarding set, the packed Barbican Hall buzzed with anticipation for Dhafer Youssef, he of the spine-tingling devotional vocals and rock-star style oud playing. The Tunisian star brought both, along with his new band of crack New York players – Ben Williams on bass, the formidable Justin Faulkner on drums and, best of all, Aaron Parks on piano. And Akinmusire, who plays on Youssef’s latest CD, joined them for much of the set. That added another strong voice to an already potent mix, the trumpeter switching to a fiery, more emphatically rhythmic idiom to fit the new context.

The band’s exuberant set, with just a couple of more reflective episodes, owed much to Youssef’s effortlessly spun rhythmic figures – he scarcely improvises at all but has an apparently endless supply of energetic riffs in complex time signatures that he plays while bouncing affably round the stage, egging on everyone else. It was his birthday, we learnt, and the party atmosphere suited. The only downside was that he egged on Faulkner most of all. The drummer responded with a stream of thunderous solos that lost their value as they went on through the set. Having established high volume, he mostly stayed there, which made much of Parks’ contribution, quite brilliant when it was audible, disappear in a welter of percussion.

Youssef’s ebullience is contagious, but I’d love to hear him, and this band, in a more considered frame of mind. Indeed, I’d love to hear Akinmusire and Parks play as a duo – an idea for next year’s festival?



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