For a jazz trumpet player, you couldn't be more on top of the world than Ambrose Akinmusire. The 32-year-old is looking good on the cover of this month's DownBeat, and he's managed to please the jazz critics and connect with audiences. It goes without saying that Akinmusire can tear it up on the trumpet — but on his new album the imagined savior is far easier to paint, he often cedes the spotlight to other players, in particular the eclectic selection of guest singers he invited to join his own quintet in the studio.
Akinmusire spoke with NPR's Arun Rath about the unlikely influences — string quartets, documentary films, Joni Mitchell — that have molded him into one of the most talked-about names in contemporary jazz. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.
This album has a very different feeling from your last — not only different instrumentation, but there are styles that get kind of far away from jazz. Did you set out to do something totally different, or did it just come out this way?
It just came out this way. I didn't set out to do anything different. I don't really approach my craft and my music like that. I would hope that it would be different, because that other album was recorded four years ago, and I definitely have changed a lot in those four years.
There's a broad palette of sounds, though, that you're using, like adding a string quartet and a guitarist. What is it about a string quartet that you like? Who are your favorite composers when it comes to string quartets?
Oh man. I really love Ravel; there's not so many string quartets that he wrote, but I love his sense of melodic development, and I love his orchestration. But the thing that attracts me to the string quartet is the ability to sustain a note. It sounds really simple, but in a jazz quintet — you know, with trumpets, saxophone, bass, piano and drums — you can't really sustain a note for longer than maybe 30, 45 seconds. But with strings, you can have one note into infinity. You can kind of get this hovering bubble thing that you can't get in a jazz quintet.
"The Beauty of Dissolving Portraits" really manifests that. It's almost like an organ, holding those tones.
And that's hard to do in a jazz quintet, with those instruments. Everybody has to take a breath; there's decay in piano and drums and all this other stuff.
It would be be exhausting.
Or just impossible. The way I see it is that you kind of get to cheat time — like you can press "slow motion" all of the sudden.
It's also nice to hear the way your group plays along, like on "Inflatedbyspinning" — your bass player is kind of blending with the strings, but it's a different voice, a different feeling.
Yeah, that was kind of the point. He represents rough part of the image I had for that tune. I had imagined it as these three woman wearing white, just kind of spinning on the edge of a cliff, and one of them is holding a red balloon. And so the bass represents the cliff, and the other string instruments represent the people that are spinning. And it builds and builds, and at the end, the balloon is inflated.
There's also some gorgeous flute in the string sections; how did that come about?
Over the last year or two, I've been thinking a lot about the beginning and end of something — like a full spectrum. And so, I'm really into having the flute play in the upper register, and having the bass at the bottom, or the end, of that spectrum. The same concept is represented in "Rollcall for Those Absent."
This is the track where you have a young girl, Muna Blake, reciting the names of these people who have died in various instances of police brutality or injustice.
She's at the beginning of her life, talking about the end of the other people's lives. It's the same sort of concept. I'm really fascinated by having these things right next to each other, as opposed to seeing the whole full spectrum — to just kind of rub them together and see how that feels, and what's produced from that.
It's really haunting.
What did you tell her?
I didn't tell her anything.
You just gave her a list of names?
Yeah. I'm good friends with her mother, Rio Sakairi — who actually does the booking at The Jazz Gallery in New York. And her father is a great jazz drummer, Johnathan Blake.
That's how it's got that really real feel to it. She doesn't know how to say "Amadou Diallo."
I love that. Trayvon Martin, though, she's at least heard that name. I like it because a lot of the names, people are familiar with. You come in, and you're just kind of like, "What is this?" And then when you hear Trayvon Martin, in the middle of the piece, you say, "Oh, okay." And then I have her read the names again, now that we recognize what's really going on. I really like the part where you have Oscar Grant's name — you know, the unfortunate situation that took place a few years ago. You have that on top of Trayvon Martin, and it's sort of saying, "This is still happening. It's the same story, just a different time."
There are lots of these kinds of references all through your songs and albums, even the tracks without words in them. A lot of the songs have these parenthetical titles, and I want to ask about one of them: "Ceaseless Inexhaustible Child." The name in the parentheses for that one is Cyntoia Brown. First off, who is Cyntoia Brown?
Sometimes when I'm practicing, if I'm not feeling so inspired to do long tones, I'll watch a documentary while I'm doing them. I stumbled upon this one documentary called The 16 Year Old Killer. This girl just had a really, really crazy life: She was a prostitute, and long story short, she ended up killing one of her clients in bed. She thought he was reaching for a gun, and she grabbed the gun, and she killed him. She went to jail, and I think she's still there. The thing that really affected me was to see the transformation she went through — because at the beginning of the documentary she's 16, and by the end she's 21, 22, and she's just so hopeless. So, that's what that's about. It's a great documentary; I would recommend it to anybody.
The recording features singing by the Canadian artist Cold Specks. How did you prep her when you talked about this song with her?
I didn't, really, so much. I really believe that music can tell you what it wants to be or what it is, if you really can tap into it and submit to it. I sent her a recording I'd made of me playing the tune while I was watching the documentary, on silent. I didn't tell her any of this. I sent that to her, and she said, "OK, I get the vibe." Then the band went into the studio in New York and tracked it, and I sent that to her. And she said, "This is a little different, but it still has the same vibe." And then I went to Toronto to record with her — and she just hit it out of the park. I didn't even tell her the story. There was no title; I didn't tell her anything. It just happened to line up like that.
There are some great examples in jazz of vocalists singing with trumpet players, like Sarah Vaughan and Clifford Brown. But I think people may not realize how hard it is to play a trumpet with a singer, because of the kind of restraint you have to have. It's wild the way you play along underneath her here.
Yeah, it's not so hard for me because I'm totally influenced by female vocalists. My biggest influence right now, and has been for a long time, is Joni Mitchell. Joni Mitchell or Björk, or before them, maybe Sarah Vaughan. I'm really into the female voice. It's sort of in the same range as the trumpet. The same reason I'm into the cello; these are things that really move me.
I want to talk to you about Steve Coleman, a great saxophone player. Would you say that he discovered you?
Um, have I been discovered? What does that mean?
You've got a second album on Blue Note now, and a host of big critiques. I think you're out there.
I was talking about this the other day with someone. I'm still really young, but I'm old enough to have new chapters in my life, to have different chapters. So, I don't know if I can say, "That was it. That was the moment." Right now, it's just a chapter, and before that, it was a chapter. There's the chapter of being taken to jam sessions and to flea markets by the local musicians, and after that there was school, and after that there was the Monk Institute, and after that there were competitions. There were always chapters, and you meet different people along the way. For me, when you look back, everybody's really important, just in different ways.
What's kind of interesting for me, as a fan, is I feel like Steve Coleman has been like a finishing school for some of the young players who are coming up with amazing new sounds these days. What is it about him as a teacher?
The same thing that I find inspiring about Joni: He's just totally committed to the music. Everything he does is related to the music, getting better, trying to get as close to that mystical thing as possible while he's here on earth. It's amazing to go on tour with him, to see him push as hard as he pushes every night, no matter what. I met him when I was 17, and I mean, he had more energy than me when I was 17. And he's so, so into me, so excited, and he's been able to maintain that for so many years.
You're going to tour this music, and it's pretty complicated, especially with all the extra instrumentation. Are you going to preserve all these concepts on the road?
We're planning on doing a bigger band — we'll have [singer] Theo Bleckmann and Charles Altura, the guitar player — but my main focus is really the quintet. These guys are really close to me, and when I'm composing, these are the people I hear inside my head, so there's that side of it. Then there's just the budget side of it: It's pretty hard to tour a string quartet, a guitar, three vocalists and a jazz quintet. That's close to impossible.
I want to ask about one more song, "Our Basement," which has the name "Ed" in parentheses. Who is Ed?
Ed is this older gentleman that I see every single day. He lives on my block; he's a homeless guy. And when you first see him you're like, "OK, a homeless guy. Whatever." But I opened up a local paper one day and there was a big picture of Ed. And I was like, "OK, this is interesting. Let me read this." I learned he was in the war, and his wife died. But the interesting part is that he would go to this church that was across the street from my house every weekend, and they would feed him. And he would save money throughout the week, throughout the month, to pay them. There's something really inspiring about that.
That song is sung by Becca Stevens. Maybe it doesn't seem strange to you, but she isn't necessarily who I would associate with this character as you described him to me. But it works.
Well, I've known Becca for a long time. When I was at Manhattan School of Music, she was at The New School. And she's someone who everybody, in my generation at least, looks up to. She's really a genius — I don't like using that word too much, she really has tapped into something in a deep way. I just wanted to work with her, so before I even knew what I was going to do for this album, I wrote her and said, "Hey, Becca, can you write a tune for my next album?" And she said, "Sure, what do you want?" I said, "Can you just write it from the perspective of a homeless man?" And she said, "OK, great." And she produced this. And then I showed her the story later.
Monday, 105 lawmakers from both parties sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, urging him to change a relatively obscure uniform requirement for the U.S. armed forces that some argue infringes on religious beliefs.
People who observe religions that require specific hair or dress traditions have to seek an accommodation from a superior to break the Defense Department's uniform requirements.
Dr. Kamal Kalsi was the first observant Sikh to apply for the accommodation since the rule took effect in the 1980s. As a devout Sikh, Kalsi doesn't cut his hair. He wraps his hair up in a turban and doesn't shave his beard. Keeping his hair long is an obligatory article of his Sikh faith.
Kalsi had joined the U.S. Army Reserves back in 2001, seven months before Sept. 11. He was in medical school, training to be an emergency room doctor. And like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him, he wanted to serve his country.
But when he tried to volunteer for active duty in 2009, Kalsi ran into a problem: His turban and beard broke the Department of Defense uniform and grooming rules.
"A turban and beard interfere with uniformity, possibly may interfere with unit cohesion, and may pose a safety hazard," Kalsi explains, paraphrasing the Department of Defense's argument.
To serve, he applied for the religious accommodation.
"It was an amicable process between myself, my superiors and the Army," he tells All Things Considered host Arun Rath. "But it was a pretty monster task. It took nearly 15,000 petitioners on a letter to then-Defense Secretary [Robert] Gates. It took 50 congressional signatures. It took pressure from the White House, a major law firm, then a civil rights advocate group, to get one soldier in."
Since Kalsi was given his accommodation in 2010, two other Sikhs have moved to active duty: Capt. Tejdeep Rattan is a dentist, currently serving at Fort Bragg in North Carolina; and Cpl. Simranpreet Lamba, stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, is the Army's only enlisted Sikh soldier. Their review periods were "incrementally easier" than Kalsi's, but still arduous, he says.
"But the fact remains that this laborious process remains a barrier to Sikhs serving. It creates a bit of a chilling effect on those that wish to serve," Kalsi says.
He says he's talked with around 100 young Sikhs who have wanted to serve but don't know how. When they show up at the recruiter's office, they're told their turbans and beards are not a part of the uniform guidelines, and that they must be removed.
"Many, many Sikhs have such a long history of military service," Kalsi says. "In Britain, in Canada and in India, if a Sikh wants to join, they simply walk up to the recruiter's office and sign up. In the United States today, that process is broken."
The accommodation isn't permanent, either. If Kalsi or either of the other two Sikh soldiers are deployed or ask to move, they will need to reapply.
The Department of Defense has made some moves to change the policy. On Jan. 30, they released new instructions that attempted to clarify the religious exemption issue. Kalsi says that it doesn't do much to fix the situation for Sikhs and observant members of other religions who run into similar obstacles because they still face somewhat of a Catch-22.
"The army will allow you in, pending your accommodation request. But you are expected to adhere to the current guidelines while your accommodation request is pending," Kalsi says. "So Sikhs would, in essence, be required to remove their turbans and shave their beards while the religious accommodation request for their turbans and beards is being considered, which is unacceptable to us."
Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., founder of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., that became famous for its controversial protests at funerals, is ill and in hospice care, family members and church officials confirmed today.
Phelps' estranged son, Nathan, first announced his father's condition Saturday night.
Fred Phelps is "on the edge of death at Midland Hospice house in Topeka," Nathan Phelps wrote in a statement posted to his Facebook page Saturday night. The announcement quickly drew hundreds of comments.
Nathan Phelps also said his father had been excommunicated from the church, and that those who are in control of Westboro Baptist are preventing Phelps' relatives who left the church from seeing the ailing pastor.
Westboro Baptist's followers became infamous for staging protests at events including the funerals of U.S. service personnel, at which they claim the deaths are retribution for America's tolerance of homosexuality.
A spokesman for Westboro Baptist Church would not confirm that Phelps had been removed from the church he founded.
"We don't owe any talk to you about that," Steve Drain told the Topeka Capital-Journal. "We don't discuss our internal church dealings with anybody. It's only because of his notoriety that you are asking."
While Drain confirmed that Phelps recently went into hospice care, he said that the controversial pastor is not close to death.
In an email to the newspaper, Nathan Phelps said that his father had also been removed from the space above the church where he had lived for years. He was moved "to another house where he could be watched for fear of him hurting himself," the Capital-Journal says, citing the email.
The newspaper said it received a separate email today from Phelps' brother, Mark, that confirmed Nathan Phelps' account of their father's excommunication and declining health.
According to his website, Nathan Phelps currently lives in Canada. His site identifies him as an author who frequently speaks about gay rights, child abuse, and religion.
In his statement posted last night, he acknowledged feeling a range of emotions at the news of his father's failing health, from sadness to anger.
Last year, Fred Phelps' granddaughters Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper made headlines as they described how they left the church. They traveled to meet with groups they had attacked, they said, in an effort to make amends.
Megan, who's now 28, told Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail:
"I'm at a complete loss. But I do know that I want to do good, to have empathy. Even though we intended to do good [with the picketing], we hurt a lot of people."
Here is Nathan Phelps' statement in full:
"I've learned that my father, Fred Phelps, Sr., pastor of the 'God Hates Fags' Westboro Baptist Church, was ex-communicated from the 'church' back in August of 2013. He is now on the edge of death at Midland Hospice house in Topeka, Kansas.
"I'm not sure how I feel about this. Terribly ironic that his devotion to his god ends this way. Destroyed by the monster he made.
"I feel sad for all the hurt he's caused so many. I feel sad for those who will lose the grandfather and father they loved. And I'm bitterly angry that my family is blocking the family members who left from seeing him, and saying their good-byes."
As part of a series called "My Big Break," All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.
You probably don't know the name June Ambrose, but you may have seen her work.
The designer and celebrity stylist is the one who got Puff Daddy to wear a shiny suit and put Nas in a pink suit and white shoes in the '90s.
Today she's a stylist to stars like Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige, but she got her start working in costume design for music videos.
Her break came when she was called in to work on Missy Elliott's hit "The Rain."
She was called in for a meeting with Missy and her management team to discuss the Supa Dupa Fly album project.
"The question was posed to me: 'How are you, June Ambrose, gonna sell this young lady to mainstream America?' " Ambrose says. "She was a full-figured girl and at the time it was all about racy, provocative females in music."
Ambrose was inspired by Missy's lyrical content: "It was almost an animated racy. I said, 'Missy Elliott will be my modern-day cartoon character.' "
On the video for the album's first single, "The Rain," music video director Hype Williams presented Ambrose with a treatment concept that involved Missy Elliott being blown up like a Michelin man in the tire commercials. But Ambrose saw it very differently.
Instead, Ambrose designed a blowup suit finished with black patent leather on the outside and tire inner tube on the inside.
"The contraption was very small deflated, but once you blew it up, it was the size of maybe a 900 pound man," she says.
They had to take Missy Elliott to a gas station to inflate the suit. When they walked back to the studio where they were filming, Ambrose noticed that the suit had a small leak and was slowly deflating.
"So, now I'm like, 'Oh God, what am I gonna do?' " Ambrose recalls. "Everyone was screaming, 'Get art department, let's figure this out!"
Her solution? A bicycle pump. Ambrose stood behind the monstrous suit pumping during every take. And it turns out, the leak made it even more visually intriguing.
"The slight leak actually made the suit a lot more dynamic than I could have ever imagined," Ambrose says. "And that crazy luck, I gotta tell you, probably changed my life."
Ambrose went on to design for every music video in Missy Elliott's career. She's worked on more than 150 videos.
"These outrageous music video moments, because they were so highly recognized and celebrated, they caught on," she says. "We never came from behind the curtains, we were the wizards. But people always wanna seek out whose creating magic."
In the film Le Week-End, a couple takes a weekend trip to Paris to celebrate an anniversary. But it's not the romantic getaway you might expect.
Nick and Meg, played by Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan, are in their 60s and have, in any ways, become disillusioned with their marriage. They spend the weekend trying to figure out what they're doing together and what they want from one another.
This is the fourth collaboration between acclaimed novelist and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi and director Roger Michell, who directed Notting Hill.
Throughout the film, the couple rapidly vacillates between love and war. Kureishi says this resembles his relationship with Michell.
"We are like a married couple — we argue all the time and we never have sex," Kureishi tells NPR's Arun Rath. "We're rather like the couple in Le Week-End, in the sense that we argue and fall out and then we do something really good together and then he has a tantrum and so on."
In the end, Kureishi says, the drama of the collaboration pays off: "It seems to me we're doing stuff together that we couldn't do separately."
Like two of their previous films, The Mother and Venus, Le Week-End focuses on the intimate lives of older people. Kureishi says that as he's aged he has become more fixated on these kinds of stories.
On making films about the romantic lives of older people
When I had kids, I began to look at the world from a different point of view and I realized there was in a sense more material in older people that I didn't, in a way, want to write about kids as I had done in, say, The Buddha of Suburbia, My Beautiful Laundrette and so on. And the lives of older people are not normally portrayed much in the cinema.
Most people who have sex in most films are having sex for the first time. It suddenly occurred to me and Rog to think about what would it be like to make love somebody that you've already made love to for 30 years. And I suddenly saw there was an audience for serious films that was not really being catered to.
On switching between novels, essays and movies
It's a tough compromise. You know, I can write an essay for which I get paid 200 bucks and then I'm trying to write a movie to keep my kids in shoes and so on. So, it's a real hustle being a professional writer. I'm amazed at my age — I'm nearly 60 now — that I've managed to make a living, as a member of an ethnic minority in Britain, as a writer for most of my life. It seems to me, looking back, there's a sort of incredible achievement. So I do all of these things because some of them sponsor the other things that I do.
On his next project with director Roger Michell
I want to write a story about two women, two friends, and one of them goes out on a date and meets a man and begins a very hot, sexual relationship with this man. And the story is really going to be about how her pleasure affects her friend and the rest of her family. And Roger and I are beginning to work on this. But you never know with Roger, he's a difficult fellow. It may not work at all.
It's easy to have an idea; in fact, it's easy to have a good idea. But to really develop it and to see whether this idea is going to hold up is another matter. So what we writers do is spend a lot of time throwing stuff away. You need to make a lot of material just to find a little bit of gold you might then be able to make into something for an audience.