What Ambrose Akinmusire Played Over the Blues

Ambrose Akinmusire in 2011.
There's no question: Ambrose plays some bad stuff. The question is: what is he playing that's so bad and how's he playing it? 

A friend of mine passed this bootleg on to me—it's Ambrose playing over an F Blues at a show, with Walter Smith III and Roy Hargrove for sure and the other musicians unidentified (probably Justin Brown on drums and Sam Harris on piano). Check out this line over the first four bars. Ambrose leaves a few measures of rest before launching into the top of the next chorus; the rhythm section sets it up.

"Ah!" That's how I felt too when I heard it—so clear and so fresh. Here's the line:

So, an ascending line that travels up an octave and a sixth in two measures, followed by a descending octave jump that unexpectedly travels up another octave and a third by way of stacked 5ths.

In my eyes and to my ears, the operative note in the line is the concert Ab—the half-step approach to the third of F7, or the #9 of F7, or the half-step approach to the root of concert A7, a half-step approach to the IV chord in bar 5, Bb7). In bar two, I think what makes that particular line sound good to me isn't the combination of altered tones, but just the general contour of a line composed by alternative "steps" and "skips." 

In this case, it's seconds and thirds, but any combination of smaller + wider intervals would work, I think. I've found that playing lines over static harmony (or extended periods of the same chord) built from general abstract shapes (big and small intervals, small intervals distended with occasional big ones) work well and let you break free of diatonic/chromatic/bebop constraints. You can actually start to build a separate harmony idea to extend, to superimpose on, or to go against the existing rhythm section harmony.

To me, the octave drop at the end of bar 3 is jarring and exciting to hear not because it's an octave drop, but because of how cleanly and connected it's played—it's slurred and there's no break; it's instantaneous. 

The stack of fifths that follow a chromatic approach to concert A natural is unexpected I think because there's a major registral shift right before, but it works well because the line resolves where it was already suggested earlier: upwards. If you think of all of bars 1-4 as an ascending line, then the octave drop in bar 3 is just a kind of aside or turn in the line. 

Accounting for that, if you shift that unexpected divergence or turn at the end of bar three up an octave, you get a much more conventional-sounding line.

Easier to play, but much less interesting to listen to. In this case, I'd think of this as an example of using octave displacement to create a line that's still bounded by "post-bop" harmony, i.e., not necessarily atonal or "non-idiomatic" or however you want to think of it, but that doesn't sound generically 2012 conservatory jazz. 

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I usually dislike written analysis of jazz solos. Most of the time, I feel like I'm wasting my life reading them or I feel like the writer doesn't really understand what's going on beyond the most basic level of harmony, melody, and rhythm. I think it does help, though, to try to do it for yourself just so you have your own personal concept of how something works or doesn't work. Nobody has to agree with it (hence my disliking most people's personal concept), but every once in a while, you might see a new way of looking at something. Just my two cents.


  1. Hey there, great analysis and great choice.
    any chance I can listen to the whole song?

  2. Hi, the bootleg you're referencing in this post is unavailable, is there anywhere else that it's posted? I'd like to listen to it.

  3. Sorry, I think I don't have it anymore (deleted at some point) unfortunately.


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