Ambrose Akinmusire offers a litany of the dead as the penultimate track of Origami Harvest, his audacious, politically exigent, altogether astounding new album. The track is titled "Free, White and 21," and its lyrics consist of the names of African-American men and women (and, it must be said, boys) slain in recent years by members of law enforcement or the neighborhood watch.
If you've followed Akinmusire's career as a trumpeter and composer over the last decade, you're sure to recognize this poison leitmotif. He introduced it with "My Name is Oscar," a spoken-word poem inspired by the murder of Oscar Grant III; that appeared on Akinmusire's Blue Note debut in 2010, three years before #BlackLivesMatter coalesced as a movement. Then in 2014, he released an album track titled "Rollcall for Those Absent," again mincing no words.
"Free, White and 21" is the most musically fulfilling iteration in the series, owing to some insurgent yet elegant writing for string quartet. As Akinmusire whispers those names — a few, like Tamir Rice, are repeated for emphasis — his overdubbed voice also wails, distraught, like an unhinged and inconsolable Greek chorus.
The concerns expressed here are far from incidental to the heart of Origami Harvest. Originating in a commission from the Ecstatic Music Festival and St. Paul's Liquid Music Series, this is an album propelled by indignation, and guided by perseverance. At a glance it suggests a few parallels with Kendrick Lamar's 2015 opus To Pimp a Butterfly, on which Akinmusire briefly appears. But the album also feels in dialogue with the likes of Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You, Kara Walker's cutout antebellum silhouettes, and Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric.
Akinmusire designed Origami Harvest to feature a fellow Bay Area native, rapper Victor Vazquez — aka Kool A.D. of Das Racist — along with Brooklyn-based Mivos Quartet, pianist Sam Harris and drummer Marcus Gilmore. That this collision of disparate forces works together so intuitively is a small miracle, one that repeated listens hardly serves to disarm.
To be clear, it's no longer unexpected to hear jazz musicians writing persuasively for chamber ensembles; alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón just released an album with a string quartet. Nor is it novel to hear improvisers deeply conversant with hip-hop: see Robert Glasper, Makaya McCraven, Keyon Harrold and myriad others. What Akinmusire accomplishes here is a synthesis on the cellular level, so confidently realized that it seems at once outlandish and inexorable.
The opening track, "a blooming bloodfruit in a hoodie," serves as a compact illustration of the whole, beginning with a rumble of toms and an unsettled flutter of strings. When Kool A.D. starts unspooling his free-associative verse, Gilmore kicks in with a boom-bap beat, and Akinmusire delivers punchy annotations on his horn. As you might expect from Kool A.D., the lyrics are ironical and allusive, steeped in wordplay and self-reference — but also tinged with lingering melancholy, befitting a track named after the tragic demise of Trayvon Martin. When the temperature changes about six minutes in, Kool A.D. begins spitting throwback tags from The Sugarhill Gang's classic "Rapper's Delight," stirring a sort of bittersweet nostalgia for hip-hop's prelapsarian age. The naturalistic flow patterns in Kool A.D.'s delivery suggest a foothold not only in hip-hop but also the poetry of the Black Arts Movement — especially Amiri Baraka, in the oratorical mode he reserved for collaborators like David Murray or the New York Art Quartet.
On a piece called "Americana / the garden waits for you to match her wilderness," the rapping unfolds against a backdrop of strobing postminimalism. The tone feels sullen at first, and then touchingly vulnerable. "America / Americana / Amerikanah," Kool A.D. riffs, conjugating an idea as much as a place name. A moment later he's musing about "the savage histories / brutal legacies / illusory democracies / feudal tendencies," sounding resigned yet resolute. The strings then pivot to a major key, as if to help him out of the darkness.
Mivos Quartet — Olivia De Prato and Lauren Cauley Kalal on violins, Victor Lowrie Tafoya on viola and Mariel Roberts on cello — brings an impressive aplomb to Akinmusire's scoring. At times, they move with the stately implacability of an elegy. But elsewhere, notably on "the lingering velocity of the deads' ambitions," the tour de force that concludes the album, they commit to an agenda of gnashing convulsion.
Akinmusire does some of his most purely expressionistic improvising on "the lingering velocity," while Gilmore demonstrates, not for the first time on this album, why he's one of the most brilliantly precise and daring drummers on the scene. (See also his percussive introduction to "miracle and streetfight," a standout track that employs Walter Smith III's reverberant, multi-tracked tenor saxophone as a salve.)
It would have been well within Akinmusire's powers to explore a musical convergence like this — meaning electronic and chamber musics crossed with new-breed jazz and indie hip-hop — without the charged sociopolitical energies involved. But that would run counter to the vital impulses he has displayed all along.
Throughout "Free, White and 21," his shouty, overdubbed voice repeats a phrase, "Blood Stained Banner." It comes from a postbellum American hymn later reclaimed by the gospel church, and the broader lyrics are worth considering in the context of the album: "We are soldiers in the army / We have to fight although we have to cry / We have to hold up the blood-stained banner / We have to hold it up until we die!"