"This is my reaction to being assaulted by information," composer and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire says of his Nonesuch debut album, Owl Song, featuring a trio with two musicians he has long admired, guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Herlin Riley. "This record is me wanting to create a safe space. Part of the challenge was: Can I create something that's oriented around open space, the way some of the records I love the most do?" The New York Times says: "Akinmusire has been making some of the most intimate, spellbinding music of his career." Pitchfork has called his work "music that seeks peace not just despite a world of unrest, but within it."
Composer and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire makes his Nonesuch Records debut with Owl Song on December 15, 2023. The album features a trio with two musicians Akinmusire has long admired, guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Herlin Riley. The first of two “title tracks,” “Owl Song 1,” can be heard here:
“This is my reaction to being assaulted by information,” Akinmusire says of Owl Song. “This record is me wanting to create a safe space. Part of the challenge was: Can I create something that’s oriented around open space, the way some of the records I love the most do?”
He says of his collaborators, “I had a feeling of wanting to record with Bill from the first time we played—it was a duo performance, very little rehearsal. We just played through some of my songs, and it worked. One of Bill’s special gifts is the ability to shape a piece he’s just heard for the first time. He seems to know what the music wants before the first note.
“With Herlin, his commitment to beauty you can find in the groove. I never like to tell musicians too much about what I’m going for, because it should be about what these particular people bring … I said, ‘I know you’re the right person for this because of the way you approach the groove.’ And, of course, what he did is just beautiful.” He continues, “Also, I wanted to put people together who didn’t seem like they would go together ... and it turns out they haven’t played a lot. So, it was cross generational, cross subgenre, cross whatever.”
Akinmusire says of “Owl Song 1,” “I have special affinity for the owls. Their personality is so distinctive—always observing. I should add that the titles don’t have huge significance in terms of what they mean—my process is not so literal,” he adds. “I wrote these songs for the people in mind who would play. I was focused on coming up with a set of music … the titles were placeholders that stayed. So, ‘Owl Song 1’ and ‘2.’”
Ambrose Akinmusire’s musical gifts developed rapidly. He grew up in Oakland, California, and while in high school he caught the attention of saxophonist Steve Coleman. Akinmusire joined Coleman’s Five Elements at age nineteen, touring while also a student at Manhattan School of Music. He then pursued further study—earning a master’s degree at the University of Southern California, then attending the Thelonius Monk Institute in Los Angeles, where his mentors included Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. He is currently the Artistic Director of the Hancock Institute.
In 2010, he was signed to Blue Note Records; his debut for the label, When the Heart Emerges Glistening, drew worldwide accolades. The Los Angeles Times observed that “Akinmusire sounds less like a rising star than one that was already at great heights and just waiting to be discovered.”
In the wake of the acclaim for his debut, Akinmusire composed music for strings and voice (The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint, 2014), appeared on Kendrick Lamar’s landmark To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), and conjured a tapestry called Origami Harvest (2018) that explored the complexities of Black. His next project, On the Tender Spot of Every Calloused Moment, furthered that narrative direction. Released two weeks after the murder of George Floyd, it contained poignant laments about income inequality and the effects of rapid gentrification on communities like those in the Bay Area where he grew up.
Owl Song is the first of three records Akinmusire is releasing on Nonesuch over the next year. Each will spotlight a distinct element of his musical world and involve different instrumentation and production approaches.