An expansive two-disc concert album, Ambrose Akinmusire's 2017 effort, A Rift in Decorum: Live at the Village Vanguard, is a sophisticated production on par with his previous studio recordings. Rather than returning to those familiar surroundings for his fourth album, Akinmusire instead brought his quartet to the Vanguard along with a set of newly penned original compositions. It's a purposeful choice that resonates with the long history of albums recorded at the storied Greenwich Village institution, most notably John Coltrane's classic, and at the time divisive, 1962 contribution, "Live" at the Village Vanguard. While Akinmusire has made a very different album from Coltrane's, A Rift in Decorum does find the trumpeter in a similarly challenging mood, balancing the highly introspective and cerebral nature of his studio albums with the unpredictable and often explosive nature of his live shows.
Joining Akinmusire are his longtime bandmates pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Justin Brown. Together, they make a distinctly mutative style of jazz that straddles the line between avant-garde classical impressionism, soulful post-bop, and atonal free jazz, sometimes within the same song. The one thing Akinmusire and crew don't really do is play anything even close to resembling a jazz standard -- and in some ways, that’s not too surprising. Although he came to broader attention after winning both the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition and the Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition, Akinmusire has proven himself a maverick. While he's an adept performer with an approach that brings to mind luminaries like Miles Davis, Kenny Wheeler, and Don Cherry, he's more interested in expansive musical motifs and exploratory improvisations than reinforcing any tangible swing or bebop traditions. Admittedly, Akinmusire isn't a lyrical composer in the traditional sense, preferring instead nuanced chordal movements that evoke mood over memorable hooks. He also tends to save his melodic ideas for his solos, in which they tumble forth like hummingbird flight patterns. It's an evocative tendency reflected in his abundant use of bracketed song titles, such as "Maurice & Michael (Sorry I Didn't Say Hello)" and "A Song to Exhale to (Diver Song)," as if to imply a deeper narrative inspiration.
A Rift in Decorum, reveals Akinmusire as a performer of extremes. Some tracks, like the opening "Maurice & Michael," or the buoyant "H.A.M.S.," find him launching into frenetic, cubist solos in which he accents his harmonically rich lines with dabs of rounded trumpet squelch, puckered vocalizations, and wide, bug-like intervals. Other times, as on the ruminate "Moment in Between the Rest" and the languid "First Page," he evokes the measured classical sound of composers like Morton Feldman and the equally nocturnal introspection of Bill Evans. Elsewhere, tracks like the flowing "Taymoor's World" find him offering both extremes, moving dancer-like between early piano-driven sections and later, wildly gesticulated group improvs. He also makes room for several solo spotlights, as on his own largely rubato "Trumpet Sketch," Harris' intro to the aptly titled "Piano Sketch," and Raghavan's moody bass feature that leads into the languorous and pensive "Condor." Ultimately, it's the tension between Akinmusire's refined compositions and his band's robust, dynamic reading of them that makes A Rift in Decorum so compelling.